Apolo Ohno takes to the ice tomorrow for a historic seventh Winter Olympics medal and he may well be the athlete South Koreans hate the most.
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.
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.