SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Viktor Ahn kissed the ice and paraded the Russian flag after winning gold for his adopted country in the 1,000 meters short track speed skating at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Saturday.
Grabbing a pair of flags, he handed one to his team mate Vladimir Grigorev, who had claimed silver, before the pair embarked on a victory lap that had one nation cheering and another fuming.
“Of course I’m happy. I’m very happy,” said Ahn. “But I’m even more happy because Russia managed to win both the gold and silver.”
Competing under his original name Ahn Hyun-soo, he won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Olympics in Turin before a bitter fall-out with officials in his country of birth.
He failed to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Games then decided to switch allegiances to Russia and changed his name, even though he did not speak the language or have any relatives in the country.
Earlier this week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered a government ministry to investigate how one of the country’s top athletes had ended up competing for a rival.
Ahn’s win, in one of the premier events in short track speedskating, confirmed his place as one of the sport’s greats.
“It’s my first gold medal in eight years. When I finished first, my head went blank. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
“I was touched by the loud applause the Russian spectators gave me....today’s result proves that my decision was right. That’s why today is so meaningful.”
For Ahn, victory was made all the sweeter by the fact South Korea, the sport’s traditional powerhouse, has still not won a gold medal in short track at Sochi.
Just moments before his win, South Korean teenage world champion Shim Suk-hee had to settle for silver in the women’s 1,500m. The men’s 1000m world champion, South Korea’s Sin Da-wan, failed to win a medal in that final, with the bronze going to Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands.
“I had no idea Russia was such a strong short track country. It’s my first Olympics in my home country. I’m so grateful for all the support people have given me here,” Ahn said.
Grigorev was also representing his adopted country for the first time at the Olympics after changing citizenship. He competed for Ukraine at the past two Games.
“I made a choice to come to Russia,” he said. “I wanted great competition and the coaches are better here.”
From the outset it was clear the Russians were going to be hard to beat. They made a clean getaway and went straight into the lead, where they were able to control the race.
The two traded places early on, but none of the other competitors managed to get past them and they dashed across the line to deafening roars inside the Iceberg Skating Palace.
“It was our strategy - for me to block out the skaters, to hold them back,” said Grigorev. “And for us to go fast so it would be impossible for the other athletes to chase us.”
Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Peter Rutherford