SEOUL (Reuters) - Seeing Viktor Ahn draped in the Russian flag and crying tears of joy after winning short track gold for his adopted country has prompted an outpouring of fury in South Korea towards the country’s skating union (KSU).
Ahn won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Turin Games under the name Ahn Hyun-soo but after falling out with the KSU and being left out of the team for Vancouver he turned his back on his homeland and took Russian nationality.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has already ordered a government ministry to find out how one of the country’s top athletes ended up competing for a Winter Games rival.
Simmering anger over the KSU’s role in his departure, and other coaching controversies, boiled over with Ahn’s win in the 1,000 meters at the Sochi Games on Saturday.
The KSU website was shut down overnight due to heavy traffic as sports fans tried to vent their anger on the site.
South Korean sports pages and news sites lauded Ahn and lambasted the KSU on Sunday.
“The Return of the Emperor!” proclaimed the Hankook Ilbo, “Ahn is writing his own history,” said Sports Seoul.
The Korean Economic daily said the storm caused by Ahn’s gold would shake up the KSU.
Angry sports fans took to the Internet to call for the governing body to be disbanded and for an investigation into the reasons behind Ahn’s departure.
“I am glad to see Ahn smiling but somebody has got to explain why he is holding a Russian flag,” a 32-year-old teacher was quoted as saying by local media.
Another wrote on Facebook he could not believe how the KSU had “alienated an athlete whose athletic ability is rarely seen even in a span of 100 years.”
There has been very little animosity directed towards Ahn since his nationality switch.
A poll conducted by Gallup Korea on 1,215 adults last November found 61 percent understood Ahn’s decision to become a naturalized Russian.
“Given his situation, the decision to give up the citizenship of his mother country sounds like an unavoidable choice...” wrote 27-year-old Internet poster Will Kim.
South Korea has been the traditional superpower of short track, winning 19 Olympic golds, but so far in Sochi the team have won just one silver and one bronze.
After his win on Saturday, Ahn said he was right to leave Korea for the sake of his career.
“I wanted to train in the best possible environment and I proved my decision was not wrong,” said Ahn, who is regarded as one of the greatest short track speed skaters of all time.
He also hinted that he would lift the lid on the events that led him to leave his homeland in search of more Olympic gold
“I will share everything I had in mind after Sochi is over,” said Ahn.
Writing by Peter Rutherford, Editing by Ossian Shine