Korea’s Golden Girl

Korea’s Golden Girl

When the world’s top figure skater takes to the ice Tuesday night for the short program and Thursday for the long, it won’t be just the Olympic judges scrutinizing her. Kim Yu-na is South Korea’s pride and obsession, the country’s first front-runner for a marquee Olympic event. Dubbing her the "national little sister" — a term akin to "America’s sweetheart" — Koreans have been crazy about the elegant teenager for years, collectively holding their breaths every time she launches herself into the air for one of her monster jumps. For many, her dominance signals nothing less than Korea’s arrival onto the world stage as a cultural and economic power, after years of chasing its powerhouse Asian neighbors and the West.

Koreans have been obsessed with sports for decades, cheering on the country’s athletes with something approaching religious fervor — see footage of Koreans supporting the Red Devils at the 2002 World Cup, for instance. They become roused when Korea faces down Japan, its occupier from 1910 to 1945 (the competition between Kim and Japanese skating superstars Mao Asada and Miki Ando is particularly fierce).

But Koreans are especially jazzed about Kim and her success because of figure skating’s domestic novelty and international glamour. Only 20 years ago, Korea barely had any money for Olympic training. During the games in the 1990s, the country’s athletes wore the stoic expressions and utilitarian bowl haircuts of its post-Soviet neighbors. For years, Korean athletes did best in badminton, table tennis, archery, and judo — workhorse sports that suggested more familiarity with bug juice than champagne. Even today, the country’s best sport is women’s golf — with a cavalcade of brutally efficient hard hitters who don’t quite win the big Nike contracts.

Korea did not even send a skater to the Turin Olympics in 2006. Now, it has a constantly beaming, individualistic, artistic, lithe, telegenic global superstar in the Winter Olympics’ most-watched banner event. What makes Kim’s success all the more remarkable is that she became the world’s best — some say perhaps the best ever — despite the lack of a developed figure-skating infrastructure in Korea. Her parents paid for her training until a few years ago, when Kim commenced her personal gold rush in international competition and garnered notice in her home country. (Korea places great emphasis on child-rearing, and Kim’s mother, Park Mi-hee, has become a lionized national hero as well.)

"Koreans long had the impression that figure skating was an unapproachable domain dominated by blond, white people. [Kim] shocked Koreans by showing that it was possible, and it made her an icon," says Hong Suk-jun, the sports editor of Chosun Ilbo, one of Seoul’s biggest papers. Now, Korea’s pride is plastered on foreign papers.

It is hard to describe just how nuts Korea is for Kim: the number of endorsements, the saturation of television coverage, and the volume of magazines sold with her face on the cover. Brian Orser — Kim’s coach and the person credited with turning her from gangly teen into gamine contender — compares Kim’s popularity in Korea to that of Princess Diana in Britain. The truth is: She might be bigger. One of her nicknames is "Queen Yu-na."

Since her debut in senior international competition four years ago, Kim has never missed the medals podium. She has been beaten just once in the past two seasons. And, she holds the world record for the short, free skate, and combined scores under the ISU Judging System.

But Kim’s artistry excites Koreans as much as her athletic prowess. Her short program includes a feisty groove to a James Bond medley; her more emotive free skate to Scheherazade has been known to send bleachers full of Korean fans into tears. International judges and the elite skating press frequently cite her for exceptional expression, not just big triple lutzes. And the Korean media frequently lauds her intangible "it" factor (ggi in Korean), gushing that she skates not just with impeccable hard-honed technique, but with beauty and passion. In other words, she busts the stereotype of Asian prodigies as proficient but somehow bloodless.

"Figure skating is a cultural performance sport. It is unlike the 100-meter sprint. You can’t participate in it if you’re not culturally prepared," explains Song Doo-heon, who writes a popular blog about figure skating and Kim. He likens her contention for an Olympic gold to "a cultural coming-out of sorts for Korea."

After years of famine, war, and division, Korea is definitely coming out. The country was once best known for supplying low-cost electronics and textiles to Americans. Now, it helps bail out Wall Street banks. Having lived in fear of North Korea, South Korea is now confident enough to implement a "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation toward its communist sibling. Having languished in the shadows of China and Japan as the "other East Asian country" for much of the 20th century, Korea now holds major cultural sway in the region.

Today, Korea literally shapes Asia’s face with its world-leading plastic surgery industry. Despite the language barrier, Korean youth culture is Asia’s most exported, with superstars like the singer Rain, actor Bae Yong-joon, and a plethora of boy bands and girl bands flooding the Asian market.

And now it has Kim, the popular and photogenic star who on Thursday might well bring Korea home its first major gold medal. If Kim wins, expect the reaction in Korea to be volcanic.