SOCHI, Russia ― It has never been revealed how much Russia paid Victor An to come and compete for them in short-track speedskating's great defection controversy, but whatever it was, it was worth it.
Born and raised in South Korea and winner of three Winter Olympic gold medals for his original homeland in 2006, An became a Russian hero on Saturday afternoon by winning the 1000-meter title for his adopted country.
The crowd at the Iceberg Skating Palace cared little that An wasn't born in Russia, that he didn't gain citizenship until a couple of years ago and that he would most likely have chosen another country to move to if it had paid him more money. This was a gold medal, Russia's third of the Games and first outside of figure skating. It even came with a bonus silver for teammate Vladimir Grigorev.
[Photos: U.S. men's ice hockey takes on Russia]
An wasn't exactly South Korea's most popular man when he switched allegiance, despite the fact that the athlete formerly known as Ahn Hyun-soo had been discarded by the Korean short-track speedskating program because he was too old and too often injured, and it had too many youngsters coming through.
For An, this was revenge of the sweetest kind, and it even came against a Korean in the final with Sin Da-woon disqualified for an illegal move. But An somehow managed to keep everyone happy on this afternoon of unpredictability, which started with the falls of contenders Charles Hamelin of Canada and J.R. Celski of the United States, and ended with a result even the most ardent Russian could barely have dreamed.
As he celebrated on the ice, An made his way over to Sin and gave him a warm embrace, which was immediately matched by the Korean. It was a reminder that athletes, in spontaneous moments, can break through all kinds of political nonsense.
According to reports, some South Koreans branded An a traitor, and he had to give up his Korean citizenship to get his Russian passport. Early on in these Games, he did not speak to the Korean media, and the Korean coaches would not answer questions about him. Heck, An even died his hair, apparently to look more Russian.
Yet his moment with Sin was pure Olympic spirit shining through, recognition of a triumph of impressive tenacity and a lasting friendship.
"It is not really about the medals or victory," said An, who, at 28, was supposed to be finished in the sport. "I know the Korean skaters did their best. We compete for the medals but we don't compete on the personal level and don't take it to heart personally. After the competition I wanted to congratulate [Sin] for his performance."
Even though An came into the event ranked second in the world, there were no guarantees in this frenetic and electrifyingly entertaining event in which anything can happen and usually does. Illustrating such perils was the plight of 1500-meter champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist Hamelin, who inexplicably slipped on the ice in his quarterfinal despite being untouched by any opponent, and Celski, whose slip looked similar.
However, An was imperious throughout, always knowing just when to stay out of trouble. In the final, he was not prepared to take any chances of an untimely slip or shove from a rival. An and Grigorev surged into the lead right from the beginning and dictated the tempo of the race through the power of their own skates.
Wu Dajing of China struggled to keep the pace despite being strongly tipped for a medal, and he, Sin, and Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands all battled among themselves. The two Russians effectively formed a wall in front of them, with Grigorev leading for much of the race.
But it always looked as if An was stronger, calmly skating with his arms behind his back even as the speed dramatically increased. Once he started driving, the shift in acceleration was devastating. By the time the last-lap bell rang, An could be caught only if he made a mistake. None was forthcoming.
"I made the right decision," An said.
He was talking about his tactics, but he might just as well have been referring to his career choice.
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