By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) – A year after her dazzling gold medal-winning performance at the Vancouver Games, figure skater Kim Yuna delivered an impassioned speech to the International Olympic Committee that helped sway the vote to bring the 2018 Winter Games to South Korea.
Dubbed the “Face of Pyeongchang” after crisscrossing the globe to garner support for the bid, Kim’s charm offensive was equally effective in Korea as she helped sell the vision of a home Olympics on snow and ice despite the country having little prior interest in winter sports.
Even after her retirement from competition in 2014, the nation’s favorite athlete has played a key role in preparations for Pyeongchang — from carrying the Olympic flame off a flight from Greece to fronting global advertising campaigns as an honorary ambassador for the Games.
But while there is no escaping Kim’s shadow ahead of the Games, she will be missing from the one place her fans long to see her most — on the Pyeongchang ice, skating for Olympic gold and South Korean glory.
Kim’s retirement has left the host nation without a true winter sports “hero” to get behind and some see that as a major factor behind sluggish ticket sales.
“Is it any wonder Koreans have lost interest in the Games now that their star athlete is gone?” asked Lee Dae-taek, director of the Center for Sport Culture.
“Kim Yuna and the short track team were responsible for boosting interest in the Winter Olympics here,” he told Reuters, adding that with so few successful local athletes competing in Pyeongchang, ticket sales were bound to lag.
Less than three months before the world’s top winter sports athletes arrive in Pyeongchang, figures from organizers show that of 750,000 tickets earmarked for domestic sale, only 177,000 (23.6 percent) had been snapped up.
“Who wants to go see the Games when South Koreans are losing all the time?” Lee added.
YUNA, ONLY YUNA
Roger Park, a professor at Hanyang University’s Sports Industry Department, said that without Kim Yuna, South Korea did not have a high-profile sporting “hero” to carry the Games.
“The only way to spark interest is through storytelling — the tale of an athlete going in search of further Olympic success, or the hard-luck story of another looking for redemption,” Park added.
“But right now we just don’t have any such athletes. And I don’t see enough efforts from the government or Olympic committee in promoting Winter Olympians.”
For many South Koreans, interest in winter sports started and finished with their figure skating queen.
“I don’t really know anyone other than Kim Yuna,” said 19-year-old Jung So-yeon when asked who she would be cheering for during the 2018 Games.
Lee Chae-won, 14, told Reuters she hoped the Games would make more South Korean athletes household names.
“I can’t think of any (winter sports) athletes other than Kim Yuna,” she said. “I hope the coming Olympics will be an opportunity for us to get to know more of them.”
Former Prime Minister Han Seung-soo downplayed Kim Yuna’s absence and said it was political upheaval that had served to dampen enthusiasm for sport.
“Interest in the Pyeongchang Olympics has been declining mainly due to the political chaos which prompted candlelight vigil across the country, ultimately ousting former President Park Geun-hye,” Han, who led Pyeongchang’s unsuccessful bid for the 2014 Games, told Reuters.
But while South Korea was indeed caught up in the maelstrom of a president’s impeachment, Park was removed from office eight months ago and new President Moon Jae-in has since restored a sense of calm to domestic politics.
Some observers have also highlighted the impact of security concerns on ticket sales, though worries about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are more likely to drag on international purchases rather than domestic sales.
With the clocking ticking down to the Games, there seems little time to craft a new narrative of Korean athletes going for gold at the 2018 Olympics.
The short track team should add to their record 21 golds while the patchwork ice hockey squad woven together by former Stanley Cup winner Jim Paek has the potential to deliver the kind of ‘David v Goliath’ storyline the country can respond to.
However, the stage could also be set for an ‘anti-hero’ to ruin the mood with Russian short track skater Viktor Ahn ready to return to his native South Korea seeking to end is incredible career on a high.
Ahn won his first three Olympic golds for Korea in Turin but after losing his place in the team due to injury and falling out with the Korea Skating Union, switched allegiance to Russia and won three more in 2014.
His Sochi success sparked an outcry in South Korea as the country demanded to know why Ahn had felt forced to defect.
While Russia’s participation remains in the hands of the IOC due to continuing concerns about its anti-doping program, Hanyang professor Park said a repeat performance by Ahn in February could spoil the Pyeongchang party.
“As host nation, South Korea wants to win as many medals as possible,” added Park. “So (if Ahn wins) it would give rise to a sense of bitterness.”
(Additional reporting by Hyun Young Yi, Yuna Park and Choi Haejin; Editing by John O’Brien)