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Exclusive: How Viktor Ahn missed out on his chance for redemption in PyeongChang

Viktor Ahn or Ahn Hyun-soo? The Korean took on Russian nationality after the Olympic Games in Turin, and became a hero for Russia at Sochi 2014, winning 3 gold medals.
by Tencent Sports

PYEONGCHANG, Feburary 12, 2018 - A press conference scheduled for 11:00 AM local time on February 9, nine hours before the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games with journalists overcrowding the venue, had to be delayed. Eventually, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) dismissed the application by Viktor Ahn and 44 other Russian athletes to take part in the PyeongChang Winter Games, extinguishing the six-time gold medalist’s hope of competing in his birth country. The absolute king of the ice now has only one option: watching the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on TV faraway in Moscow as a bystander.

From Ahn Hyun-soo to Viktor Ahn, he has carried an ineffaceable brand of “tragedy.”

A victim of factionalism in the South Korean short track speed skating circle, Ahn made a decision to take Russian citizenship, which made him infamous as a defector. Then when the former star wished to return to his home country’s Olympics in glory and give his last performance, he suffered a ban by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) due to his Russian citizenship. He was barred from competing in PyeongChang, this time becoming a victim of Russia’s confrontations with the West.

From Sochi to PyeongChang, Tencent Sports has been following Ahn Hyun-soo for four years. Switching his allegiance from South Korea to Russia, and wishing to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics under a neutral Olympic flag, this accomplished skater, however, is a man who never had his destiny under his own control, falling victim to multi-party factionalism and confrontations.

Master of the ice track

This is the indoor ice rink of Korea National Sport University (KNSU) in early December 2017.

On the rink, the Russian short track speed skating team was making their final preparations for the PyeongChang Winter Games, just like the other qualified teams. Ahn’s Asian face stood out in the throng of blond athletes. As the team leader, Ahn accompanied his teammates all the way on the track, guiding them about the right time to overtake competitors.

“Ahn is a master of short track speed skating, particularly in controlling the track during competition,” Wu Dajing, top Chinese short track speed skater, said. Wu was also a victim of Ahn’s superb competing skills.

During the 500-meter final in the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, Ahn started slow, but skated to victory by taking advantage of a fall by China’s Liang Wenhao, and achieved several catch-ups with his swiftness and ability to control the competition track. He then overtook Wu Dajing at the start of the final lap to cross the finishing line. Wu, who won the silver, was extremely frustrated.

When leading in a competition, Ahn is like an insurmountable wall, making his rivals go crazy with his perfect grip on the whole course. When falling behind, he is always able to seize the best moment and manage to overtake others in the most effective manner. For short track speed skating games, which require strong personal skills, it is vital to have a precise control of the competition course track. Claiming the title of the Overall World Championships for five consecutive years, Ahn also achieved a tally of six gold medals and two bronze ones at the Winter Olympics.

However, Ahn could not control his life trajectory as skillfully as he did on the rink.

At first, December 6 was just an ordinary training day. Then the IOC officially announced it was banning the Russian delegation from participating in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games. However, Russian athletes who could prove their innocence in Russia’s doping scandal would be allowed to compete under a neutral Olympic flag.

As the IOC’s decision was made public, Russian society grew upset and concerned. Some thought the uncompromising Russian Government might respond by completely withdrawing from the Olympics, keeping Russian athletes at home.

Ahn Hyun-soo learned the news from a Yonhap News Agency reporter at the KNSU. He then broke it to his teammates in Russian. The unexpected news made him and his teammates begin to discuss every possible scenario. Consequently, the training was stopped.

“Although the reaction was not as terrible as I expected, Ahn said nothing,” recalled the reporter who had told Ahn about the ban in an interview with Tencent Sports.

Being asked his views on the IOC decision, Ahn, while leaving the rink with his blades, told the media in distress, “This is not something within athletes’ control.”

“If they [the Russian Olympic Committee] care about the athletes who have been working so hard for the PyeongChang Winter Games, they should allow us to take part [under a neutral Olympic flag],” he said emotionally, though normally he is a calm man. “But I also know that it is unacceptable for Russia to send its athletes to an international arena in uniform without the Russian national flag,” he added, turning round to his teammates on the rink, seemingly holding back some words.

“I have been preparing for the PyeongChang Winter Games for four years. I will not give up,” he told the reporter determinedly. He appeared at the training rink the next day as usual.

Later, rumors flew in the South Korean media that the global focus on the PyeongChang Winter Games would be severely diminished if Russia withdrew from the Games. Just before the ban announcement, the North American National Hockey League (NHL) had issued a statement, saying that NHL players would not compete in PyeongChang as the NHL games overlapped with the Olympics. Therefore, after the IOC announced the ban, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in person and extended his invitation for Russian athletes to compete in the Games as individuals. President Moon pledged that South Korea would welcome and receive the participating Russian athletes with the warmest hospitality and grand ceremonies.

But in case of disputes, no individual can change the situation.

“Do you think such a person will be included in the list of ‘clean athletes?”

In January, the temperature in Moscow dropped to minus 10 degrees Celsius.

On January 23, while readying the equipment with his teammates prior to going to South Korea for the PyeongChang Winter Games, Ahn Hyun-soo received more devastating news.

Earlier in the month, the Russian Olympic Committee submitted to the IOC a list containing the names of 500 Russian athletes seeking to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Games under a neutral Olympic flag. An IOC invitation review panel chaired by former French sports minister Valerie Fourneyron was set up to review the list and choose the athletes the panel believed to be clean. In the first round, a total of 111 names were rejected, including Ahn Hyun-soo’s.

The news of Viktor Ahn being banned from the PyeongChang Winter Games due to doping suspicions made front-page headlines in Russian, South Korean and international newspapers. ‘Ahn Hyun-soo’ became the most frequently searched name on Naver, South Korea’s largest search engine and website. “Did he get so many gold medals because of doping?” This became the most frequently asked question among South Korean Internet users.

Once again, Ahn fell from dizzying heights to purgatory.

Russian Olympic Committee Vice President Stanislav Pozdnyakov condemned the IOC’s decision, denying that Ahn had ever been implicated in any doping scandal. Ahn’s father, who lives in South Korea, cried in front of the media and recalled how his son would not take any medicine after catching a cold to ensure a career in short track speed skating. The aged man emotionally said he supported his son to appeal to international sports dispute arbitration agencies.

A journalist from Russia’s TASS News Agency indignantly said at least three gold medal opportunities were lost for Russia, thanks to the IOC rejection of so many potential participants for the PyeongChang Winter Games. Ahn’s coach Hwang Ik-hwan also confirmed that his recent training performance was satisfactory, and claimed if Ahn had the chance, he would have won at least one medal.


Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Ahn Hyun-soo. (Photo: Tencent Sports)

The Russian media said, “Their goal is to prevent Russian athletes from reaching the podium. They would say, look, without doping, Russia can win only a few medals.” After the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, Putin conferred state decorations to gold medalists. During the decoration ceremony, he took a photo with Ahn and made it the cover photo on his personal social media page, showing his appreciation for the skater.

“Do you think such a person will be included in the ‘clean list?” a Russian journalist who followed Ahn commented to Tencent Sports.

With the public seething in indignation, Ahn decided to make a final desperate try. On January 27, he wrote an open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach, asking for an explanation for his ban and wishing to have it struck off. It happened two days before the deadline for registrations expired. “After all these years in sports, no one ever doubted my integrity and honesty, especially my victories through hard work. This decision to prevent me from being in the Olympic Games has become a symbol of the IOC’s mistrust of me as well as the reason for the mistrust of the entire sports community,” Ahn wrote.

“Viktor still doesn’t want to comment on the issue. To be precise, he is still waiting for the IOC to revoke the ban so that he can go to PyeongChang at the last minute,” Anatoly Samokhvalov, a Russian journalist who is also a friend of Ahn’s, told Tencent Sports. During the waiting period, Ahn declined all interview requests.

However, the waiting was in vain. The IOC refused to give an explanation on the ground that it doesn’t reply to individuals.

On January 31, at his private residence in Moscow, Putin met the athletes who were about to go to PyeongChang and compete under a neutral Olympic flag. Ahn attended the meeting, but sat in the last row. Four years ago, in sharp contrast, he had been in the first row to receive the state decoration from Putin.

“Please win,” Ahn told his teammate Simon after the meeting. Simon was the only one of the four Russian skaters from the 5,000-meter relay race team in the Sochi 2014 Winter Games who was allowed to take part in PyeongChang. “I could feel how sorry and sad Viktor was at that moment,” he said, recalling Ahn’s words.

Ahn’s last minute Olympics

Ahn returned to the Korea National Sport University to prepare for the PyeongChang Winter Games around December 2017.

During Tencent Sports’ tour of the Korea National Sport University, a student’s father excitedly showed his kid’s photo with Ahn Hyun-soo. “It was December 31 [2017]. He brought pizza and presents for the children and the young athletes training here,” the father recalled Ahn’s visit. Although it was roughly a month before the PyeongChang Winter Games, Ahn seemed relaxed, coming back to a familiar environment to prepare for the grand event. Ahn’s coach Hwang Ik-hwan also told Tencent Sports that although Ahn was 30, he had maintained top performance and would win at least one medal in PyeongChang.

Lee Jeong-su, who won the gold in short track speed skating in Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, also came back to the KNSU. He would frequently visit Ahn as an enthusiastic fan.

During the interview, Tencent Sports spoke with a teenager at the indoor ice rink of the KNSU. “My goal is to be an athlete like Ahn Hyun-soo,” she said. She was about to graduate from high school and become a professional short track speed skater. Besides being worshipped by his peers, Ahn, who became famous at a young age, also made South Korean parents determined to make their children practice the sport.

Like many other young players taking to the rink of the KNSU, Ahn began his acquaintance with the event as early as a first grader in primary school. Soon, he began to show his talent for speed skating. In 2002, young Ahn wearing gold-rimmed glasses claimed the gold medal in the World Junior Championships.

His performance impressed then chief coach of the South Korean short track speed skating national team who was watching the game from the grandstand. About one month before the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the coach, surnamed Jeon, substituted an injured player with Ahn, who was still a junior high school student. In this way, Ahn got a last-minute chance to participate in the 2002 Winter Games, coming under the spotlight of the South Korean media and public.

Ahn’s outstanding talent, while giving him a chance to compete in the 2002 Winter Games, also set the stage for future endless factional strife in the South Korean short track speed skating community.

From Ahn Hyun-soo to Viktor Ahn

The story goes back to Turin 12 years ago.

The men’s 5,000-meter final relay at the 2006 Winter Games is still regarded as a classic race, years later. Before the last lap, defending Olympic champion Canada had a solid lead. As the last sprinter in his team, Ahn Hyun-soo could find a chance only in the last two laps, or 222 meters.

In a last-second curve on the last lap, despite nearing his limits, Ahn made a sudden brilliant pass from the outside lane, helping South Korea achieve victory.

From the start to speeding up and overtaking other rivals, every move was smooth and perfect. Even 12 years later, the audience can still feel the excitement on the rink from the blurred match video.

But once out of the cameras’ sight, the inside scene was just the opposite. With such a dramatic win, one expected the sprinters to hug one another and celebrate the hard-won victory. But surprisingly, the other three team members rushed to the men’s team coach, while the hero who had won the victory quietly went another way, to the women’s team coach. Ahn could not help but weep due to the pressure.

Outsiders thought they were tears of happiness. Only Ahn himself knew the pain in them.

After the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002, Ahn officially joined the Seongnam Club and competed as a professional skater. The club held a grand press conference for him and paid him a signing bonus, a first in history. He also enrolled in the Korea National Sport University.

As a country with many competitive top short track speed skaters, South Korea suffered from factionalism in the sport community. There were two camps, each of whom had their own coaches and different training regimens. One was the KNSU camp led by Jeon Myung-gyu, the other the non-KNSU camp.

Ahn’s club and the university he attended were the base of the KNSU camp. In fact, from the time he was spotted by Jeon Myung-gyu, thanks to his rocking performance in the 2002 World Junior Championships, Ahn had been labeled a member of the KNSU camp. But the player he replaced to compete in the 2002 Winter Games was from the non-KNSU camp.

Before the Turin 2006 Winter Games, Ahn Hyun-soo had already won four world championships. To outsiders, he had become an undisputed representative of the KNSU camp. However, Lee Ho-suk, a sprinter supported by the non-KNSU camp, also registered in every event in the Turin Winter Games, and was also one of the four racers for South Korean team in the men’s 5,000-meter relay.

To disrupt Ahn’s preparations for the events, the non-KNSU camp coaches incited their players to deliberately prevent Ahn from training. One day after training, Ahn and younger teammates from KNSU camp were stopped by senior players from the non-KNSU camp. “Come to our dormitory this evening,” the senior players ordered. When Ahn arrived at the dormitory, he was thrashed mercilessly. “My younger teammates were beaten even harder,” Ahn disclosed this unpleasant experience to his friends later. The South Korean media think he suffered such beatings at least three times.

During the preparations for the Turin 2006 Winter Games, the animosity between the two camps continuously fermented, finally reaching a climax. Ahn, the player with the highest potential of winning gold, was dropped from the men’s team. He had to train with the women players.

In Turin, Ahn claimed two gold medals in men’s 1,000 meter and 1,500 meter before competing in the men’s 5,000 meter relay. However, rumors were floated that “Ahn would deliberately lag behind to take revenge on his teammates and the coach.”

“If I had planned something, I would not have sprinted so hard at the last moment,” Ahn told the reporter from South Korea’s MBC who came all the way to Russia to interview Ahn years later. Back in 2006, Lee Ho-suk told the media privately that he had been asked to fix the gold for Ahn in several races, and that Ahn never made “sacrifices” for others. The rumor was widely circulated. Although Lee vigorously denied his involvement in it, Ahn was extremely upset.

“In fact, they are friends,” Ahn Hyun-soo’s wife Woo Nari told Tencent Sports in the grandstand during the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, showing photographs of Ahn with several South Korean short track speed skaters taken in the Olympic Village, including one with Lee Ho-suk from the non-KNSU camp. In Sochi in 2014, Lee Ho-suk did not dodge the public. Instead, he sat with Woo Nari and watched Ahn Hyun-soo’s performance. In an interview posted on the IOC official website, Lee said Ahn Hyun-soo was his icon.

After Ahn Hyun-soo changed his citizenship, a senior South Korean short track speed skater said:

“Only with Ahn Hyun-soo becoming Viktor Ahn, can everyone return to a normal peaceful life.”

With no control over his own destiny

After taking Russian citizenship, Ahn Hyun-soo changed his name to Viktor in honor of Russian rock star Viktor Tsoi, whose grandfather was from South Korea. The deep-seated reason behind taking the name was to represent the history of tears Tsoi’s family represented in the 1930s, when Koreans were deported to unpopulated areas in Central Asia.

They used to live in the Russian Far East. In 1934, Stalin started the Great Purge, a campaign that targeted Russian political leaders. However, Korean immigrants in the Far East were dragged into it by default and were forced to move to Central Asia. They struggled to live there for nearly 70 years, becoming a Korean ethnic group that can be categorized as neither South Korean nor North Korean.

“I understand the difficulties and bitterness they experienced,” Ahn said. Just like Soviet Koreans, he has no control over his own life, but has to wander in a remote land, a victim of factionalism and confrontations.

Ahn’s coach Hwang Ik-hwan once described his protégé as “introverted and a young boy with good control over his feelings.” “He must be experiencing a tough time. I knew he cried secretly, and would not tell anyone,” a player from the women’s team recalled the time when Ahn was forced out of the men’s team during the preparations for the Turin Winter Games.

When Ahn changed his name to Viktor Ahn, the president of the Russian Skating Union received calls from South Korea and was told, “Ahn Hyun-soo was a troubled skater in South Korea. You absolutely cannot accept him.”

Even then, Ahn blamed nobody. He was beaten, excluded and forced to leave, but he never made a scene. From the beginning to the end, Ahn chose to remain silent and bear everything privately.

“The reason I changed to Russian citizenship is that I want to have a more favorable training environment. The factionalism back home is not the direct reason. I don’t want anyone to get hurt because of me,” Ahn said. Even though he had a chance to fight back after he swept the Sochi Winter Games podium, he chose to remain silent.

Why did this undefeatable ice rink champion make such concessions? The public could not understand it for a long time.


Ahn's eight Olympic medals: 3 golds and a bronze apiece at Turin 2006 for South Korea and at Sochi 2014 for Russia. (Photo: Tencent Sports/CFP.cn)

Due to his extraordinary performance in the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, Ahn’s history of being dropped was once again dug out by the media. The official website of the Korea Skating Union was hard-hit by adverse remarks and criticism. Although he was far away from South Korea, Ahn’s name still continued to be a searing keyword to expose the factionalism in the South Korean skating community.

As the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games approached, Jeon Myung-gyu, leader of the former KNSU camp, returned to the Korea Skating Union as its vice president. He told the media in October 2017 that the skaters to save the PyeongChang Winter Games would be the South Korean ones. His remark led domestic Internet users to criticize the non- KNSU camp.

However, some Internet users in South Korea understood what was really happening, and they responded to the comment by saying, “Jeon again? He was the one who started this chaos.”

“I felt really sorry for the South Korean skaters for the criticism during the Sochi Winter Games. I was worried the public opinion would affect their performance. That’s the reason why I declined all interview requests from the South Korean media,” Ahn explained after the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.

Ahn knew that if he made any remarks, whatever they may be, it would affect his former teammates as the Olympics was approaching. What was unusual, however, was that then South Korean president Park Geun-hye made a remark, saying that the South Korean sports community should undergo self-examination while the Sochi Winter Games was still on. At that time, Ahn Hyun-soo just won the 1,500 meter bronze. Park later stepped down due to a corruption scandal. However, the media said she had deep influence on the preparations for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, citing Ahn’s case as a convincing reason to reshuffle the sports community.

Through his long forbearance and self-control, Ahn realized the truth that a person’s source of confidence is the belief that he is different from others. At the heart of the factionalism in the South Korean sports community, how could you suppose you would end up with a different career?

How Russia made things easier

Before the 1,500-meter race at the Sochi Olympics, Woo Nari, Ahn Hyun-Soo’s wife, came to the venue for the first time. She approached her husband before the event started, and told him, “Honey, do not be too greedy. Don’t slip.”

“Don’t fall; it doesn’t matter if you don’t get first place.” These were the words that she would tell him every time in the past six years before he took part in an event.

Ahn has four major surgeries on his left leg. Before the 2008 World Championships, he fractured his left knee during training. In order to resume training as soon as possible, he went back to the rink even though still not fully recovered, with a steel pin in the broken knee. Because of this, he had to have three more surgeries. According to his wife, after the surgeries, the medial muscles of Ahn’s left thigh are gone and his left leg is half the size of his right leg in breadth.

The chance of a complete recovery from the injuries was distant at that time. The government of Seongnam, the city where Ahn lived, was heavily in debt and scrapped sports and cultural institutions, followed by the closure of the government-funded Seongnam Club. At that time, the KNSU camp headed by Jeon Myung-gyu lost ground in the ice power struggle. After the non-KNSU camp took office, the clubs had to follow its will. No one showed any interest in Ahn, who was from the ousted camp. He was even regarded as a “laid-off worker” in South Korean public opinion and became eager to transfer to other clubs.

The Russian short track speed skating national team sent an invitation to Ahn who was desperate.

“It was neither because of the money, nor the good training conditions there, but because at least one team was willing to take me in then,” Ahn said, recalling his feelings when he received the invitation.

When Ahn arrived in Russia in 2011, the level of the Russian short track speed skating team was similar to that of junior high school students in South Korea. However, in the national championship that year, Ann was eliminated in the qualifying match, which showed how bad his condition was.

At that time, not only his teammates, but even the Russian Sports Ministry lost confidence in Ahn. Though Dmitry Medvedev in his tenure as president had signed the document granting Ahn Russian citizenship, it was Vladimir Putin’s appreciation of Ahn that was more important. It is said that the Russian Sports Ministry was jittery when reporting Ahn’s performance, but Putin gave them a firm response: “The only thing we can do now is to unconditionally trust and support him.”

In order to help Ahn regain his physical fitness, Russia invited Hwang Ik-hwan to continue to train him and allowed Ahn’s wife to move into the athlete’s apartment. During the Sochi Winter Games, she was listed as a “news officer with the team” so that she was free to go in and out the arena with Ahn. This was unprecedented in the history of the Russian team.

“The Russian team trusts me so much. I’ve always wanted to be in a place where I am trusted,” he said after the Sochi Olympics, revealing his innermost feeling.

Ahn picked up his skill in doing what he was good at without further distractions. However, he would no longer wear the South Korean national team uniform as he has made a decision to switch allegiance to Russia.

A home that I cannot return to: which is my home court?

In the summer of 2017, along with Evgeni Plushenko, a Russian sports icon who’s been dubbed “Prince on the Ice,” Ahn took part in a famous Russian talk show, saying he looked forward to the PyeongChang Winter Games after he completed his summer training. During his appearance on the show, but for his Asian face, he would have been taken as a Russian due to his fluent Russian and his witty remarks from time to time, which amused the audience.

After the Sochi Winter Games, be it in supermarkets or on the streets of Moscow on weekdays, Ahn was always recognized by the locals, who would say things like, “He is the Olympic champion.” “It was not easy then.” “He is our hero.” Every time people saw him, they would ask for a selfie with him.

From whiz kid to defector and back

Ahn lives in a two-story villa on the outskirts of Moscow. On the days he is not training, he takes his daughter Jane Ahn to the Russian rhythmic gymnastics training ground. “In South Korea, people learn taekwondo and the piano from an early age. In Russia, the national sport is rhythmic gymnastics, and most girls start learning it from an early age.” He hopes his daughter, growing up in Russia, will be exposed to this national sport from her childhood. He and his family are trying to integrate themselves into their new life.

After the Winter Games in Sochi, in addition to being a national hero of Russia, Ahn’s status in South Korea has also completely changed. Before the Games, in the eyes of most South Koreans, he became a “defector” from the earlier “whiz kid of the year.”

But after Sochi, Ahn not only became the Samsung mobile phone spokesperson in Russia, but also featured in the Korean Broadcasting System’s famous show The Superman is Back with his daughter. “Ahn is the best source for Russians to know about South Korea,” South Koreans said during street interviews. The “defector” regained the status of the hero of the year.

However, according to Hwang Ik-hwan, the night before leaving South Korea for Russia, him and Ahn drank in excess and he cried. “I wish I could stay, I really do not want to go,” Ahn reportedly said again and again. In the days of preparing for the PyeongChang Winter Games, every day Ahn would look intently at three photographs on the honor wall of the Korea National Sport University before going to the ice rink.

The three photos are pictures of athletes who graduated from the university, and presented on podium at the Turin, Vancouver and Sochi Winter Games. To South Koreans, Ahn never came back from Turin. In the photos for medalists of the Sochi Winter Games, everyone was included except Ahn although he won three gold medals. The reason is, at that time, he was in Russian uniform.

“It would be great to see him in South Korean uniform and wave the national flag with his teammates, just like in the Winter Games in Turin,” Woo said in Sochi, revealing his innermost thought.

“I really want to end my career in South Korea and I hope they (the Korean audience) will be proud of me,” Ahn also said, revealing his thought to Lee Ho-suk after drinking together during a training break at the university.

Epilogue

Even though Ahn has long won respect outside the ice rink, as a competitive athlete, his greatest hope was to win applause again in his birth country. For a skater who was already 30, the PyeongChang Winter Games would have been the last chance to fulfill his dream.

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