The IOC claims that the Olympic Games are a competition between individuals, not nations. This statement is laughable. Team sports totally contradict this idea as does the medal count, which directly pits nations against each other by comparing whose athletes have brought home the most hardware.
In the midst of athletic proxy-wars and politically-infused games, Viktor Ahn has further complicated this marriage of sports and politics.
Ahn took gold for Russia in the men’s short track speed skating 500m race, edging Dai Jing Wu of China and Charlie Cournoyer of Canada, who took silver and bronze respectively. Overall, he’s won three gold medals and a bronze in Sochi, giving Russia its first short track speed skating medals in Olympics history.
Here’s the controversy: the artist formerly known as Ahn Hyun-soo was born in Seoul, South Korea and until 2011, was a star for his home country’s short track squad. After a falling out with the South Korean skating federation, however, he sought a new country whose national skating team he could lead to victory. He landed in Russia, with the other finalist being the United States.
From the perspective of the IOC, Ahn has done absolutely nothing wrong. He is by no means the first athlete to feud with a coach and by leaving that federation, he is skating as an individual – just as the IOC contends all athletes do. Still, he gained Russian citizenship solely to compete for the country’s speed skating team. To pick a country like high school recruits pick a university goes against a fundamental fantasy among Olympic athletes: the dream of competing for your home nation.
It’s an idea the IOC does not support, but one that permeates the Olympics nonetheless, manifested in the waving flags of triumph and the tears of joy that fall on the podium during the playing of national anthems.
Ahn is caught in the middle of these two perspectives. On the one hand, he is simply doing what is best for his speed skating career. On the other, fans watching from South Korea must be disappointed that one of their native sons is winning gold medals while wearing another nation’s colors — especially because the South Korean men’s short track team left Sochi without a single medal.
The IOC is delusional if it honestly believes the Olympics are not a competition between nations. But the bottom line is that Ahn is a short track speed skater – the best in the world – wearing the uniform of the nation in which he lives. It’s as simple as that.