New country for old Olympic champion

Yahoo Sports
Victor An of Russia reacts after competing in a men's 5000m short track speedskating relay semifinal at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Victor An of Russia reacts after competing in a men's 5000m short track speedskating relay semifinal at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

SOCHI, Russia — He is now known as Victor An and that sounds close to being Russian, at least the first name.

Russia's big — and perhaps only — hope for short-track speedskating success at the Sochi Games used to be called Ahn Hyun-Soo and was a three-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion for his native South Korea.

An's big switch of nationalities came three years ago when he began the process of gaining Russian citizenship. He moved to Moscow after struggling to overcome injuries and subsequently being snubbed for South Korea's Olympic team for the Vancouver Games.

A lucrative deal was struck, according to a former Russian coach who helped arrange it, but neither party has ever revealed how much An is being paid. He is, however, guaranteed a coaching job with the Russian national team once his career ends.

[Related: U.S. short-track relay team survives wild crash]

"But it will only be in the future," said Alexei Kravtsov, the president of the Russian speedskating federation, pointing out that An is expected to compete in the World Short Track Championships in Moscow next year.

"It is big news in speedskating," eight-time Olympic medal winner Apolo Anton Ohno told Yahoo Sports. "Any time you switch citizenship to race for another country it is a big deal. I personally could never do it. But the one thing we can say for [An] is that he loves the sport and if that meant for him to switch the country he is representing it really shows how dedicated he is."

If not for injury problems, An might be in position to go down as one of the greatest short-trackers ever. According to Ohno, An's unique physique gives him a significant advantage.

[Video: Travis Jayner on Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis]

"If there is any athlete that is designed for short track, body-type wise, it is him," Ohno said. "If you watch him stand and jog, his pelvic is tilted forward naturally, which is perfect for a skater. He has incredible technique, tons of experience."

Predictably, the An situation has created plenty of attention in Korea, although to be fair he was dismissed by that country's short track program and told he was no longer needed. South Korea's glut of world-class skaters meant there was no room for an aging star, not even a man who won the 1000 meters, 1500 meters and 5000-meter relay at the Turin Games in 2006.

Historically, Russia is a country that prefers long-track speedskating. An's bronze medal in the 1500 here on Monday was the country's first ever in short track. "I would like to thank [Russia] for believing in me," he said at his post-event press conference.

The Russian and South Korean media have followed his story keenly and have spent much time trying to pin him down. An, however, has shown the same fleet of foot as he does on the track, dodging reporters so effectively that his press conference was the first time he had been quoted during the Games.

The Russians have warmed to him quickly, giving him a rousing reception each time he has stepped onto the ice at the Iceberg Skating Palace. An even dyed his hair, apparently to appear more Russian, first blond and now orangey-brown.

[Photos: Olympic fans show their national pride]

"When I first came to Russia, it was harder compared to what I had imagined," An told the Voice of Russia broadcasting service last year. "Not everything had worked out so quickly."

He seems fully acclimated now, even telling a television interviewer this week that he now enjoys the local food. An plans to marry his Korean fiancée — who lives with him in Moscow — following the Games.

Meanwhile, the South Korean team does not speak about him. Questions on the subject are greeted with silence from athletes and coaches.

An comfortably moved through the first round of 1000-meter heats on Thursday, qualifying alongside a Korean, Sin Da-Woon, and will be a serious medal contender again when the event resumes on Saturday.

As the U.S. team continued to seek its first medal in both disciplines of speedskating, it is worth mentioning that An may have come to the States if the cards had fallen differently. At the time of his decision to leave his homeland, he considered many international destinations, according to Jang Kwon-ok, Russia's former head coach.

"He was looking at the U.S. too, very much," Jang told the New York Times. "But it was difficult to move to the U.S., and also the budget was a problem. He needed some salary and they could not pay. There is no money there for short track. The best condition was Russia because they were open and make it good for him."

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