January 20, 2014

Defection of Ahn is one of the most interesting storylines at Sochi 

Viktor Ahn, front, formerly known as Ahn Hyun-soo, has been racing against Koreans since 2010, as a Russian.  (Newsis)

Viktor Ahn, front, formerly known as Ahn Hyun-soo, has been racing against Koreans since 2010, as a Russian. (Newsis)

By Kim Young-jin

For Koreans, the sight of Viktor Ahn on the Olympic podium is a familiar one. But if he wins this year, it could make for an awkward photo op.

Ahn will be representing Russia in Sochi. (Yonhap)

Ahn will be representing Russia in Sochi. (Yonhap)

That’s because the decorated short track speed skater, whose Korean name is Ahn Hyun-soo, will represent Russia, his adopted homeland, after switching allegiance for this year’s Games.

The defection of Ahn, 28, is one of the most interesting storylines at Sochi as it pits him against his native country, a traditional powerhouse in the sport.

Ahn dominated the Olympics eight years ago in Turin, bringing home four medals, but the turning point came in 2010, when Ahn failed to make the Korean Olympic squad. Complaining of a lack of support from the Korean speed skating federation, as well as “jealousy” within the team, Ahn approached Russian sporting authorities.

Then, he relocated to Moscow and took on Russian citizenship.

“The strange thing about these Games is that I have a feeling of preparing for it as if for my first competition so I am trying to regain all of my strength to focus on this goal,” he told Reuters last week. “There was a situation that prevented me from training comfortably in South Korea, but in Russia, the sports atmosphere is great,” he added.

Ahn arrives in Sochi with momentum, having won the 500-meter event at the International Skating Union World Cup Short Track in Seoul in October. However, he will face stiff competition not only from Koreans but also stars such as Canada’s Charles Hamelin, the 2010 Olympic Champion in the 500.

Watchers favor Ahn in the 500 meters, over skaters such as Hamelin, China’s Liang Wenhao and Korean Park Se-yeong.

He’s also expected to be in the hunt for the 1,000 meters, though he’ll have to out-skate Hamelin, U.S. star J.R. Celski and Korean Sin Da-woon here.

Koreans Sin and Kim Yun-jae are favored in the 1,500 meters but observers don’t count Ahn out in this event. “In my eyes, Viktor Ahn, as he’s now called, is the most beautiful short track skating athlete in the world in terms of his technique and the way he skates,” retired U.S. speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno said.

Russia hopes that Ahn can reverse its fortunes in short track, in which it has only won a bronze medal during the 1992 Alberta games. Korea remains the dominant nation in the sport: its 19 golds are twelve more than any other nation.