SOCHI, RUSSIA – Viktor Ahn was already a Russian citizen. At the Sochi Olympics, he was embraced as a Russian hero.
Ahn clapped as he crossed the finish line after leading Russia to Olympic gold in the 5,000-meter relay. His countrymen applauded right back, cheering the speedy skater who delivered the nation’s first medals in short track.
“This will be the best Olympics in my life,” he said in Korean. “I will never forget it.”
Fittingly, Ahn capped his four-medal performance in Sochi with gold in the relay, a medal he wanted the most as a way to unify the team he joined after forsaking his native South Korea.
“I’m so happy to be able to smile in the end with my teammates,” he said.
The South Korean men’s team, meanwhile left Sochi without a single medal.
Ahn won two golds on Friday, the final night of short track, to tie retired star Apolo Anton Ohno for the most career Olympic medals in the rough and tumble sport with eight. Ahn won four golds at the 2006 Turin Games, and added a bronze and three golds in Sochi.
Ahn clinched the relay by taking the lead for good after passing American J.R. Celski with eight laps to go. Earlier in the evening, he won the 500, the only event Ahn had never won in two Olympics.
“He just shows he is the best guy in the world, definitely here,” Ohno said. “He’s got eight medals, six gold. Perhaps the best ever to put short track speed skates on. Yeah, I would say so.”
Ahn held his own news conference in the wee hours of Saturday morning, explaining that he waited until the end of short track to address the long-asked questions about why he left South Korea.
The 28-year-old Seoul-born skater switched nationalities in 2011 after competing for South Korea as Ahn Hyun-soo in Turin. A career-threatening knee injury in 2008 and multiple surgeries kept him from producing results for his skating club and he didn’t have enough time to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Ahn’s team soon disbanded and other teams were already full, leaving him at a loose ends
“I was feeling bad and sad,” he said. “My goal was to participate in another Olympics.”
The shy redhead eventually found a new home in Russia. South Korea law prevents men from holding dual citizenship, so he had to find a new national identity, too.
“I made a decision and I have no regret,” he said. “I would like to thank Russia.”