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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korea sees ethnic diversity in winter sports ahead of PyeongChang Games

All News 09:00 March 02, 2016

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) -- Though his name doesn't sound like a typical Korean's, skier Kim Magnus competes at international events under the South Korean flag.

Kim, born to a Norwegian father and a South Korean mother, recently won two gold medals in men's cross-country skiing at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. In his father's land, Kim opened a new chapter for his mother's country as he became the first South Korean skier to claim a gold medal at the major international event.

The 17-year-old, whose Norwegian name is Magnus Boe, holds dual citizenship in Norway and South Korea. But last year he decided to compete for South Korea in major tournaments, including the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.

After all, Kim is a native of Busan, a port city 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. He speaks Korean with a Busan dialect and likes to eat Korean dishes like "gukbap" (soup with rice).

"I do have patriotism as a South Korean, and since the PyeongChang Games will be staged in the country, I thought it will be more meaningful (to compete as a South Korean)," Kim said of his decision last year. "I hope skiing in South Korea can also become more popular through me."

Kim is just one of the mixed-blood or naturalized winter sports athletes in South Korea. Before the PyeongChang Games kicks off, South Koreans, who are known to have pride in their nation's "ethnic homogeneity," can see their stereotype that national team members should be only pure Koreans taking a twist as athletes like Kim are emerging on the scene.

South Korea is a country where winter sports are relatively unpopular, although there are exceptions like figure skater Kim Yu-na and medal-winning short-track speed skaters. But the country is now the host of the upcoming Winter Olympics, and South Koreans think they have another good opportunity to surprise the world again.

"Since there is a festival at home, South Koreans think they need to win medals," said Chung Hee-joon, a sports sociology professor at Dong-A University in Busan.

For skiing and ice hockey, in which South Korea is considered low-tier, improving the country's competitiveness in them for the Winter Games has become an urgent task as local fans don't want to feel ashamed by watching humiliating losses at home. Raising the two sports' popularity has also been another project because these events are ticket sellers.

This situation has prompted sports officials to pursue plans of giving citizenship to talented foreigners and persuading dual citizenship holders to compete for South Korea because they can have an instant impact.

"Winter sports federations want to promote their sports as the PyeongChang Games will soon take place," Chung said. "They also hope to produce good results with naturalized players who can also help South Korean athletes improve their skills."

The Korea Ski Federation (KSF) last December helped skier Lee Mee-hyun recover her original nationality. The 21-year-old, who competes in freestyle ski slopetype, was living as Jacqueline Gloria Kling after she was adopted by an American family at the age of one. She has a goal of her own.

"I hope to meet my South Korean birth parents through the Olympics," Lee told Yonhap News Agency on Feb. 16. "My goal is to put my best effort forward and produce a result, which I can take a pride of being Korean in."

Considering her world ranking is around No. 60, there is little expectation for Lee to win a medal at the Winter Games for now, but the KSF hopes Lee will help promote the sport.

With an interesting personal background, Lee has already made headlines in local media. Though she failed to participate because of a foot injury, she almost became the first Korean female skier to compete at the International Ski Federation (FIS) Freestyle Ski World Cup event when it was staged in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province.

In addition, the KSF last year reportedly tried to persuade 15-year-old Korean-American snowboarder Chloe Kim to join the South Korean team, hoping she can raise awareness of the sport and deliver medals at the PyeongChang Games.

But that plan seems to have fallen through as Kim recently won gold medals for the United States in halfpipe and slopestyle at the Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. She was also the flag bearer of the U.S. at the opening ceremony.

South Korea's naturalization target isn't only limited to those with Korean-descent.

In biathlon, two Russians are on the verge of obtaining South Korean citizenship with the help of the Korea Biathlon Union.

Anna Frolina, who finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games in the women's 7.5km sprint, and Alexander Starodubets, the 22-year-old who finished seventh in the individual race at the 2012 Biathlon Junior World Championships, are already training with the South Korean national team.

The 32-year-old Frolina, formerly Anna Boulygina before her marriage, has a good memory in Pyeongchang as she previously won the gold medal in a relay event at the 2009 Biathlon World Championships held in the city.

In men's ice hockey, four North Americans have already earned their South Korean citizenship. Canadian forward Brock Radunske first cut the tape in 2013, and fellow Canadians Brian Young and Michael Swift followed him in 2014. Last year, the U.S. winger Mike Testwuide also became a South Korean citizen.

This year, two foreigners are set to get their South Korean citizenship. Canadian goalie Matt Dalton and American defenseman Eric Regan have recently passed the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) screening for special naturalization and are awaiting the final approval from the South Korean Justice Ministry.

Should Dalton and Regan earn their South Korean citizenship, six of the 22 positions on the men's ice hockey squad will be filled with foreign-born South Koreans.

Head coach Jim Paek, a Seoul-born Canadian and a former Stanley Cup-winning defenseman, said there is no need to alienate so-called "blue-eyed Koreans."

"For me, these players are South Koreans," Paek said earlier this month. "They've lived long enough in South Korea, and they are already part of South Korean culture."

Paek, who is the first Korean-born player to compete at the National Hockey League (NHL), pointed out that making the team with naturalized players is not rare in the ice hockey community. For instance, Japan had eight naturalized citizens on their ice hockey team at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

Paek acknowledges that having many imports on the team can reduce playing opportunities for other South Korean players. But the 48-year-old coach emphasizes that these foreign-born players can help South Korea immediately at the PyeongChang Games and raise the standard for other South Korean players to develop their skills further.

The advantage of having six imports on the team was recently shown at the 2016 Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in Copenhagen, where South Korea played impressive games against Norway and Denmark. At the PyeongChang Games, South Korea is in the same group with world No. 1 Canada, and European powerhouses Czech Republic and Switzerland.

"What I want from naturalized players is nothing special," Paek said. "I just hope they practice hard and bring their best efforts with a mindset that they are representing the country just like any other South Korean players."

Despite the incoming wave of the foreign-born players to the national team, pundits doubt that they will break South Koreans' stereotype on ethnic homogeneity because people think of imported athletes as "mercenaries."

"It's wrong to ask these naturalized players to just bring medals," said professor Chung at Dong-A University. "Without laying the groundwork for multiculturalism and improving the sports environment, these moves could be one-hit wonders."

Cho Seong-sik, a sports sociology professor at Hanyang University in Seoul, said when it comes to naturalization of foreign athletes, two things matter in South Korea: the sports they play and their race.

"For sports that South Koreans are less skilled in or that are unpopular, or have no meaningful histories, people here don't care about bringing foreigners to the national team," said Cho. "Just look at ice hockey. Was there a big debate on those naturalized players?"

In other sports, local fans have embraced multiracial athletes on the national team without big opposition.

In basketball, two half-Korean brothers -- Moon Tae-jong, born Jarod Stevenson, and Moon Tae-young, born Greg Stevenson -- played for the national team after receiving their South Korean citizenships in 2011. In particular, Moon Tae-jong was a member of the gold medal-winning South Korean team at the 2014 Asian Games.

In table tennis, South Korea welcomed Chinese female players who failed to pass their country's notorious national team selection qualification, which many consider is even harder than winning major international events.

Table tennis players like Tang Yeo-seo and Seok Ha-jung have already delivered medals for South Korea and the baton has now moved to Jeon Ji-hee, who is currently ranked world No. 14. Jeon, born Tian Minwei, was recently named the 2015 Korea Table Tennis Association Player of the Year.

But South Koreans have been closing their national team doors to foreigners in football, which the country takes pride of being a semifinalist at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and in marathon, which the late Sohn Kee-chung's gold medal run at the 1936 Berlin Olympics highlights the agony of Koreans during the Japanese colonization era.

In January, the KOC withheld the naturalization of Wilson Loyanae Erupe, a Kenyan-born marathoner. Before Erupe, there was Brazilian footballer Eninho. In 2012, the Korea Football Association (KFA) tried to help the former Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors forward acquire South Korean citizenship, but the KOC later dismissed the idea.

Coincidently, both denied athletes are darker skinned than Koreans.

"Korean-American National Football League (NFL) star Hines Ward has softened South Koreans' view on multiracial and foreign-born people here," Cho said. "But still, people are sensitive about ethnic homogeneity especially when black athletes are involved."

South Korea isn't only an importer of athletes. In winter sports, the country has also exported some high-profile short-track speed skaters, and South Koreans have wondered why their compatriots have turned against them.

The most renowned case is Russia's Viktor Ahn, who won three gold medals in short-track speed skating at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. The 30-year-old, who was a triple gold medalist for South Korea at the 2006 Torino Winter Games as Ahn Hyun-soo, left his mother nation under controversy. He claimed that he was the victim of a factional feud with the national skating federation.

Before Ahn, Choi Min-kyung, who won the 3,000-meter relay gold at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games for South Korea, represented France at the 2006 Torino Games after she failed to earn a national team selection.

"We are now living in a multiracial and multicultural society, and will see more mixed race and foreign-born players," Cho said. "Athletes look for the best environment for success, and choosing their nationality is an option."


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