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The Korean Peninsula: Athletes and National Identity

By Joyce Kang

International sporting competitions are a time for friendly rivalry, when nations come together and root for their representative athletes. Gold medal champions hear their country’s national anthem and stare at the nation’s flag while standing on the podium. But how do we view national identity in an age of migration?  

Following the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, netizens obsessed over the Korean-turned-Russian speed skater that won Russia 3 gold medals and 1 bronze medal. Although the South Korean female athletes managed to bring home medals for their home country, the sting went deeper as for the first time since 1992, no Korean male athletes medaled.

Viktor Ahn (formerly Ahn Hyun-soo) moved to Russia after not qualifying for the 2010 South Korean Olympic team following a knee injury and internal politics in the Korean Skating Union (KSU). He isn’t the first Olympic athlete to change nationalities, but Viktor Ahn appears to be one of (the most?) successful Olympic athlete to make this choice.

This bodes some questions in regards to future of athletes as country representatives.

Should there be more stringent limitations on changing citizenship to compete? In Ahn’s case, he had to choose between competing and representing Korea. Or perhaps he came to the realization that internal politics would always play a role in the Olympics selections. This also begs the question: do you need to be a patriot to also be an Olympic athlete? Given the fact that it is a nation-based competition, patriotism could be a significant factor. But in the Sochi Olympics, 3 Indian athletes competed under the Olympian flag. Although athletes can come as independent Olympians, the International Olympic Committee must approve the decision, normally when there is political instability and/or lack of an Olympic committee for their country. At the same time, posing restrictions on nationality could potentially be an unfair policy to those immigrants who choose to represent the country they currently reside in. How does one prove if they are “nationalistic” enough to compete for their country? And should that even be a standard?

Furthermore, it is unclear what happens to Viktor Ahn now. Can Russia see Ahn as their own? (Russian media did call him the “hero of Sochi” during the Games and Ahn received the Order for Merit to the Fatherland 4th class from Russian leader Vladmir Putin) And with Korea’s tendency to embrace the “bloodline”, including ethnic Koreans who rise to fame (see Hines Ward), Viktor Ahn’s position in Korean society could become precarious after making the conscious decision to compete for Russia. Perhaps it’s a good opportunity for South Korea to revisit their standards before Korea’s own 2018 Winter Olympics less they risk losing more star athletes. Some claim corruption in giving preference to athletes from certain schools as the reason why Ahn was forced to leave in the first place. Was Ahn a victim or just seeking better monetary opportunities? Even South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is looking into why he left and if the federation is to blame. Certainly some Koreans seem to think so, evidenced by the crash of the KSU website after receiving a flood of messages assigning blame.  

Kim Jiyoon, in her recent report for Asan poll, claims that national identity in South Korea, particularly ethnic homogeneity, is a continually changing and transforming concept and appears to be decreasing in significance in South Korea. We can see this throughout discussions on potential future reunification with North Korea, policy toward ethnic Koreans outside of Korea, and the push toward multiculturalization in South Korea today. Going forward, how can the Korean government continue to incite Korean pride amongst Koreans living outside Korea while supporting multiculturalism internally? And specifically in Ahn’s case, how should it laud the accomplishments of a former Korean athlete who consciously chose to give up his Korean citizenship?


Joyce Kang is a Robertson Foundation for Government Fellow and first-year MPIA student at IRPS concentrating in International Politics and Korea. In addition to JIPS, she is the upcoming President of Mannam Korean Cultural Club and Director of External Affairs for Women Going Global at IRPS. Her research interests include the role of educational and cultural diplomacy, soft power, and national identity in shaping foreign policy and security initiatives. 


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