Kim Yu-na’s skating triumph stirs Korean nationalist fervor

Kim Yu-na could be excused if she had cracked under the pressure. Going for gold in Vancouver on Thursday night, the slight South Korean figure skater carried more than her own expectations of victory; she represented the yearning of a nation.

And when Kim delivered with a skate for the ages, Koreans had not just their country’s first-ever figure skating gold medal, but something many treasure even more: the defeat of Kim’s closest rival, Mao Asada of Japan.

When it comes to sports, there is little sweeter to a Korean than a victory over Japan, its former colonial occupier and the country against which it measures success.

“With South Korea versus Japan, it is all about one-sided nationalism,” said Shin Kwang-yeong, sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “Whether it is baseball or figure skating, people are increasingly viewing sports in a nationalistic perspective. It’s a phenomenon based on South Korea’s group perception about its traumatic history.” The result is almost unimaginable pressure on Korean athletes to succeed against Japanese rivals. Kim’s winning free-skate performance was streamed into cellphones and beamed live onto billboard-sized screens in Seoul.

Called the “figure queen” at home, 19-year-old Kim is a celebrity who transcends sports in Korea. She may train full-time in Canada, but her presence is ubiquitous in Korea: Her smile sells cellphones and bank accounts. As the country’s tourism ambassador, she is the face of South Korea itself.

The endorsement possibilities will only accelerate now, but Kim has expressed irritation about the high expectations placed on her by Koreans. In an essay published last month in a book called “Kim Yu-na’s Seven-Minute Drama,” the 5-foot 4-inch, 103-pound skater wrote: “I resent the situation where people believe I should always do well and that they take it so seriously when I don’t.”

But to most Koreans, international competitions against Japan carry the atmosphere of Cold War-era showdowns between Soviet and U.S. teams. The colonial experience has left lingering Korean grievances, in sports as well as politics and culture. The sporting history is chilling: Marathoner Sohn Kee-chung was the first Korean to win an Olympic gold medal, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But living under Japanese rule, Sohn was forced to compete under the Japanese name Kitei Son.

Anti-Japanese feeling ran so strongly in South Korea that, in 1954, when the countries’ soccer teams were to meet as equals for the first time in home-and-away matches for a place in the World Cup, South Korean President Syngman Rhee refused to allow the Japanese team to set foot on Korean soil. Both games had to be played in Tokyo, where the South Koreans prevailed anyway. They had motivation. “Be prepared to throw yourselves into the ocean if you lose,” the president reportedly told them.

Jubilant celebrations greeted the South Korean baseball team’s gold medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Mourning followed the loss to Japan in the final of the 2009 World Baseball Classic played in Los Angeles before a raucous crowd of ex-patriate Japanese and Koreans.

The competitive feelings toward Koreans are felt a little less intensely across the water in Japan -- the Sea of Japan if you listen to the Japanese, the East Sea to Koreans -- where the desire to be No.1 in sports is strong, but beating the Koreans is secondary. If anything, the Japanese see surging sports superpower China as their main rival.

Instead, the Japanese have been troubled by their country’s modest performance at this year’s Winter Games in Canada.

“Japan hasn’t been able to get any gold medals -- it’s kind of sad,” said Emi Watanabe, 50, / a Japanese former figure skater and world championship medalist. “The national mood is down with this Olympics because there has been a lack of gold medals.”

But the Japanese and Koreans share something in common: a recently discovered love affair with figure skating, a sport long-dominated by North Americans and Russians but now becoming prominent in Asia.

In Japan, 19-year-old Asada is also a superstar, and the Vancouver Games were to be her long-awaited shot at Olympic gold.

At 15, Asada was considered best in the world, the first female skater to land two triple-axel jumps in the same program. But she was also unlucky, born 87 days too late to meet the Olympic age requirement to compete in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

So Japanese fans were taking this year’s showdown seriously too. Women’s figure skating received more media attention than the other big story in Japan this week: Toyota Chairman Akio Toyoda’s appearance on Capitol Hill to defend the reputation of the iconic Japanese company.

But Japanese fans largely downplayed the politics.

“I don’t think the girls have any of that political stuff on their mind,” said Machiko Yamada, 67, special advisor on figure skating at Japan’s Chukyo University and Asada’s childhood coach, referring to the relationship between the skaters themselves. “They just consider themselves rivals, in a good sense, as athletes. They aren’t buddies. But they have a good relationship with each other.”

If so, most Koreans missed the cue. Nationalist sensitivities were attuned for any anti-Korean bias, including over the amount of airtime that the international broadcast feed gave to Japanese speedskaters during a South Korean gold medal skate, which led to a complaint from the South Korean broadcast network to Olympic officials.

That has been soothed by Kim’s golden performance.

Perhaps no Korean found more joy in the win than Hong Yong-myong, 78, South Korea’s first competitive female figure skater.

“I’m so happy I lived long enough to see this,” Hong said. “In the past, we really envied Japanese skaters. But now we’re ahead of them.”

Nagano is a special correspondent. Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.