SOCHI, RUSSIA – The short track speed skater once known as Ahn Hyun-soo — who won three golds for South Korea at the 2006 Games — said Sunday he has no regrets about switching allegiance to Russia after a fourth Olympic triumph.
Beset by injury problems and having fallen out with South Korean skating officials, Ahn won fast-tracked Russian citizenship in 2011, took the name Victor Ahn and immediately became Russia’s No. 1 short track athlete.
As Victor Ahn, he’s become a national hero in Russia after winning the men’s 1,000-meter title in Sochi on Saturday. After crossing the finish line in first place, Ahn kissed the ice, broke down in tears and raised the Russian flag above his head.
“I took the decision to skate for Russia. Before that there was a tough, difficult period,” he told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily.
“I waited eight long years,” he said, referring to the gap between his golds.
The likeable Ahn, 28, watched at races by his invariably tearful girlfriend Nari, has become a national celebrity in Russia and his status is now set to rise further.
He chose his Russified name Victor not just as a born winner but also inspired by the ground-breaking Soviet rock musician of Korean descent Victor Tsoi, who died in a car accident in 1990 aged 28.
Ahn’s hero status in Russia contrasts with how he is viewed by many South Koreans, who are still astonished that one of the country’s best-known athletes could walk out and compete for another nation.
In a congratulatory telegram, President Vladimir Putin paid tribute to Ahn’s “unmatched mastery.” He also pertinently noted how Ahn had won the support of “all of our fans, who believed in you and were with you.”
Ahn told the Sport Express daily after his victory that moving to Russia “was the best decision I could have taken” after missing Vancouver 2010.
“I wanted to carry on doing short track but understood that this would not be easy,” he said. “Russia offered me the best conditions from all the possible options.
“I came here (to Russia) as I needed a good atmosphere to train in calmly. And I found it here.”
Ahn said he’s aware of the sometimes negative coverage in the Korean press but said he will keep the response that has been “building up in my heart” until after the games.
“I read a lot of articles about myself and often think about that. I really have something to say in reply,” he said.
Ahn’s gold was arguably the highlight of the games so far for the host country, especially with fellow-Russian Vladimir Grigorev taking silver.
The head of Russia’s speedskating union, Alexei Kravtsov, said that Ahn’s relationship with Russia will not end with the Olympics and in the future he will work as a coach of the Russian team.
“But it will be only in the future. He will still compete and will take part in the world championships in Moscow in 2015,” he told the R-Sport news agency.