Ohno becomes most reviled athlete in South Korea

Ohno becomes most reviled athlete in South Korea

Published Feb. 19, 2010 10:57 a.m. ET

Apolo Anton Ohno may be feted at home for his Olympic feats, but he's better known in South Korea as the ``king of fouls.''

The American short-track speedskater, who goes up against the South Koreans again when he races for a historic seventh Winter Olympics medal on Saturday, may well be the athlete South Koreans hate the most.

One company once sold toilet paper emblazoned with Ohno's face: Ohno joyfully winning the gold, Ohno kissing his medal, Ohno laughing. One video game features an Ohno character you can shoot in the head, and to call something ``Ohnolike'' is to deride it as a dirty trick.

The bad blood goes back eight years to the Salt Lake City Olympics, where South Koreans believe Ohno stole the gold from Kim Dong-sung, who finished first in the 1,500-meter race but was disqualified for blocking. Ohno, then a teenager competing in his first Olympics, threw up his arms as he tried to pass Kim, as though to cry foul.


As Ohno stepped up to claim his gold, his joy only sealed South Koreans' disgust for an athlete lambasted as ungracious and unsportsmanlike. Thousands of angry anti-Ohno e-mails shut down the U.S. Olympic Committee server for nine hours.

Hatred of Ohno is said to have fueled anti-American sentiment back then, and it doesn't help that his father, Yuki, was born in Japan, the nation that colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945. South Koreans try to trounce Japan as often as possible on the playing field, and Ohno is not exempt.

The animosity toward Ohno grew so heated that the entire American short-track team withdrew from a World Cup event held in South Korea in 2003, citing death threats against Ohno. In 2005, the athlete traveled in South Korea, reportedly under the guard of police.

Last year, with tensions appearing to simmer down, Ohno chose to make the trip for a World Cup event and was roundly booed by the crowd in the coastal city of Gangneung. And when a South Korean won gold and Ohno was disqualified, the audience roared and cheered with approval.

Ohno, older and wiser, shrugged off the booing. And he managed to earn the crowd's grudging respect with a clean skate later in the competition, drawing applause for an undisputed gold medal finish.

South Koreans are possessive and prickly about short-track speedskating, until now the country's best Winter Olympics event. The Asian nation of 49 million routinely churns out Olympic medalists in the short track, and two coaches on the U.S. short-track speedskating team were born and raised in South Korea.

At these games, the South Koreans have emerged as a surprise force not only on the short track but also on the long track. South Korea has five medals so far, one of them a gold to Ohno's silver.

The traditional rivalry between Ohno and the South Koreans flared up again in that race, the 1,500 meters. Three South Koreans were in the lead as they rounded the last turn, but two crashed out, allowing Ohno to slip across the finish line in second.

Incensed gold medalist Lee Jung-su criticized Ohno as ``too aggressive'' in a post-race news conference.

``Ohno didn't deserve to stand on the same medal platform as me,'' he told Yonhap. ``I was so enraged that it was hard for me to contain myself during the victory ceremony.''

South Korean broadcaster SBS posted a clip online from the semifinal with a caption saying it shows Ohno ``pushing'' Lee.

``I understand that in sports, you naturally want to win. But sports competitions should be won through fair play,'' Jung Kyung Kim, a 21-year-old college student, said in central Seoul on Friday.

Ohno called the final a ``crazy race'' full of bumping and grabbing. He also admitted he had been hoping to capitalize on a South Korean mistake.

``At the end of the race, I was hoping for another disqualification, kind of like what happened in Salt Lake City,'' Ohno said.

Still, Ohno later offered his congratulations to Lee in a Twitter post. ``Wow Koreans are strong as always,'' he added.

The rivals will have a chance to put their trash-talking to the test this weekend. Ohno, Lee and the two who crashed in the 1,500, Lee Ho-suk and Sung Si-bak, will compete Saturday in Canada to qualify for the 1,000-meter final.

If he wins, Ohno will become the most decorated American in Winter Olympics history.

But at least one blogger hopes to see him fall flat on his face: ``He should fall down on the ice and have (figure skater) Kim Yu-na land on his disgusting face after she performs a triple axel.''


Associated Press writers Hongkeun Jeon and Nathaniel L. Kim contributed to this report.