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Many South Koreans See Skating Loss as Part of U.S. Plot

The World

Asia: To angry fans, athlete's disqualification is another reflection of American arrogance.

February 26, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — Just when you thought the 2002 Winter Olympics were over, the furor lives on in Seoul.

South Korean fans are still nursing a grudge over their man's loss of the gold medal last week in the 1,500-meter short-track skating competition to American Apolo Anton Ohno.

Thousands of South Koreans are participating in an online fund-raising campaign to buy a $1,350 replica of the gold medal, which they hope to present Wednesday to skater Kim Dong Sung on his return from Salt Lake City. They have launched angry e-mail campaigns against the U.S. Olympic Committee; against NBC, which televised the Olympics; and against comedian Jay Leno, who rubbed salt in the wound with a biting joke about Korean anger.

It is not simply a question of sports. The loss of the gold medal is widely perceived here as part of a larger conspiracy by the United States to override South Korea's interests in favor of its own agenda.

"This kind of American arrogance, which disregards international justice and the pureness of sports, reflects U.S. President George W. Bush's unilateral diplomatic policies," said ruling party legislator Kim Seong Ho in a statement Monday to the National Assembly. Bush's visit to Seoul last week drew many protests from South Koreans who, despite Washington's declarations to the contrary, fear that the United States will invade the North.

Kim also echoed the complaints of many South Koreans that the United States improperly politicized the Olympics to drum up support for its campaign against terrorism and turned the Games into "a private memorial service for the victims of the New York terrorist attacks."

Jang Yung Je, a manager at Haansoft Computers and one of the organizers of the fund-raising campaign to replicate the gold medal for skater Kim, said she believes that the Olympic judges wanted to give the United States more than its rightful share of gold to salve the wounds of Sept. 11.

"The most commonly heard theory is that America wanted to regain its pride that was torn by the terrorist attacks and that they expected to be compensated by the judges," Jang said. "I believe that too."

In an editorial published Monday, the English-language Korea Herald declared that "a new Cold War has started" over the "scandalous proceedings in Salt Lake City."

The skating ruling, widely criticized even outside South Korea, was made by an Australian referee during the Wednesday night race. Three days of appeals, first to the International Skating Union and then to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, failed to advance the South Korean delegation's complaints.

The Russian, Japanese, Canadian, Chinese and Ukrainian delegations also have complained about the Games--the Russians the loudest. But South Koreans turned to the weapon they best deploy: the Internet.

Within hours of the race, the U.S. Olympic Committee Internet server crashed under the weight of 16,000 e-mails, most of them from South Korea, one of the most wired countries in the world. Some of the e-mails were so threatening, especially toward skater Ohno, who is Japanese American, that the FBI opened an investigation.

About 48,000 South Korean fans staged a cyber-attack on NBC. Leno has been a particular target of their wrath after cracking a joke about the skater kicking and eating his dog. South Koreans are particularly sensitive to foreign criticism of their penchant for dog meat.

More than 100 South Korean Internet sites have launched Olympic protests since the controversial race. Angry sports fans have also deluged South Korean government sites with demands for a nationwide boycott of American products.

"The U.S. is the axis of evil in sports," read one typical entry last weekend on an Internet site.

"Let the world see united Koreans. . . . Let us not repeat our history in which we never took revenge!" proclaimed another.

One sociologist here suggested that the dramatic reaction to the Olympics reflects a long-standing Korean complex about being the underdog.

"Korea has been surrounded and dominated by bigger countries throughout its history--by China, by Japan, these days by America. We are defensive because of that," said Lew Suk Choon of Yonsei University. "One gold medal might not mean very much to a big country like the United States, but to us it means international recognition."

"We are a small country. This is the only way we can fight back," agreed Min Lee, a 33-year-old worker for a security company who has been participating in the cyber-war.

During the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, a South Korean boxer staged a memorable sit-in, refusing to leave the ring for 67 minutes to protest a referee's ruling against him. During the same match, coaches and fans threw chairs at the referee.

Michael Breen, author of "The Koreans," said Koreans tend to "project insecure nationalism onto their athletes because historically they felt the world was against them."

Breen also chalked up the intense reaction to the Olympics this year to the emotional character of the South Korean people. He recalled that many times during important soccer games, he has read newspaper reports of fans dying of heart attacks from cheering too much.

"This is a country filled with passion and emotion," Breen said. "They lose rationality. But then again, don't all fans?"

*

Chi Jung Nam in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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