Column | Feb. 24

Ice queen

I dashed up two flights of stairs to the Frist Campus Center television lounge after having endured the mandatory 15-minute post-meningitis vaccine waiting period. Yuna Kim was about to skate for the long program portion of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics figure skating competition, and I was desperate to watch.

Twenty or so Korean American Student Association members already dominated the first two rows. They collectively gasped and reached for each other when Yuna stepped onto the ice. Even as I chuckled at their antics, my heart started to beat ever-so-slightly faster. Some may marvel at the intensity and persistence of Yuna Kim’s native fans. From an outsider’s point of view, it is hard to understand why many South Koreans regard Yuna Kim as so much more than just an astounding athlete.

Nationally, Yuna Kim has transcended the title of national athlete and achieved unprecedented celebrity status. Lean, long-limbed and delicate, Yuna Kim is the physical ideal and has starred in countless campaigns and commercials. She has also surprised her fans with her lovely singing voice, showcasing a lesser-known talent. Having trained extensively in Toronto, Kim speaks decent English with only a slight accent — a feat admired by Koreans, who often view good English as a means of achieving success. Her English-speaking ability, her fame and her air of dignity and poise are thought to have played a crucial part in the election of Pyeongchang, South Korea as the next host city for the Winter Olympics. Even her somewhat icy disposition is perceived positively, adding to her title “Ice Queen.”

Yuna Kim’s success was consistent and long-lasting. Since her senior career began in 2006, she has never once failed to reach the podium at any competition. Her comeback performances after her hiatuses — which were due to injuries and possible retirement — were always stellar. My father once said, “Kim Yuna does all the work, and Korea’s just taking a free ride on her success.” Indeed, it seemed as though South Korea’s Ice Queen never failed to deliver, regardless of the increasing pressure from and expectations of her country.

Until her seemingly sudden emergence as a formidable figure skater, South Korea had not ever been represented so prominently and outstandingly in any sport. As a rising nation with a rapidly growing economy, South Korea was bolstered by a name they could proudly present to the major arena of world sports.

So, the reaction of fans in South Korea — and here at Princeton — to Adelina Sotnikova’s upset victory last Thursday is understandable. Fellow Princeton Korean students groaned in protest and disappointment when they saw Kim’s scores: They were exceptional, but not enough to beat Sotnikova’s even more outstanding overall score. My Facebook feed — and the Internet — immediately blew up with angry statuses and accusations of rigging.

Politics and controversy aside, I was somewhat disappointed by the reactions of my peers. I understand just as well as anyone the joyous satisfaction of a national athlete’s victory and the bitter disappointment of a loss. However, we are all aware of the dangers of jingoism and excessive nationalism that comes hand-in-hand with the Olympics. As Princeton students, we operate under the unofficial motto, “In the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations.” We would do well to remember that we have a responsibility to act as informed, reasonable global citizens, especially in a time when most of the world is engaged in an event as controversial and heated as the Olympic Games. We should encourage the world to dismiss the notion that a nation’s performance in the Olympics defines how great that nation is, instead of corroborating it ourselves.

To enraged Princeton fans of Yuna Kim: I am certain that most spectators of figure skating will agree there has not been, and probably never will be, a skater like Yuna Kim. It may even be true that there have been competitions in which her victory was irrefutable. However, the act of judging a figure skating competition is inherently subjective. Kim’s performance on Thursday was deserving of the gold, but deserving is never a guarantee. Kim herself has said that what she wanted from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics was not a medal but an end to her figure skating career that would make her proud. She is eager to leave behind a successful career, to rest, and to start a new life. We may care about the difference between silver and gold, but I’ll venture to say that in the grand scheme of things, Yuna Kim doesn’t.

Jiyoon Kim is a freshman from Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at ljkim@princeton.edu.

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