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Kim Yuna has South Korea's full attention

WINTER OLYMPICS

The world figure skating champion is a superstar of huge proportions in her homeland and the favorite for the gold medal in Vancouver.

February 11, 2010|By Philip Hersh

Reporting from Toronto — Kim Yuna had boot problems.

The reigning world figure skating champion took the ice for her morning practice at the Toronto Cricket Skating & Curling Club, skated a few minutes, then limped off. Kim removed her right skate and gave it to her mother, Park Mee-Hee, who had been watching from beyond a glass wall that separates the club's lounge from the rink.

This unremarkable episode two months before the Winter Olympics would have been headline news in South Korea, where three TV networks had shown her arrival at a November Grand Prix event in Lake Placid, N.Y., then run endless loops of her fall on a triple loop jump in . . . practice.

Kim's mother pulled out a set of tools and began adjusting the blade. The problem was fixed in 10 minutes, and Kim returned to the ice.

Such issues are so common for elite skaters, whose jumping and spinning puts intense pressure on boots and blades, they merit little attention unless they occur the week of a competition.

But everything Kim does is a big deal in South Korea, where a newspaper has named her the country's "person of the year" the last two years and respondents to a Gallup poll have chosen her as South Korea's top athlete the last three years.

So it is no coincidence that Kim has attained that stature and become the Olympic gold-medal favorite as a skating emigre.

"I can't really focus on my skating in Korea because the media and everyone is watching me," she said.

She has trained in Toronto since 2006, finding comfort in the club's atmosphere of British exclusivity, what with its namesake activities and lawn bowling greens and croquet courts and $18,000 senior members' initiation fee. The protection against constant scrutiny from South Korean media that comes with such surroundings is a big part of its appeal for Kim.

"I'm not used to this type of circus," Brian Orser said. "Even in 1988, it wasn't as big as this."

In 1988, the only other time the Winter Olympics were in Canada, Orser was the country's best hope for a gold medal. He won a silver, and Canada got no gold, making Orser want to apologize to the country.

Now he is Kim's coach, the one about whom South Korean newspapers have written, "Coach Orser is the savior." Said Kim's agent, Michelle Ha: "Brian is the most popular foreigner in Korea."

In four seasons with Orser, Kim, 19, has become far more than the first Korean figure skater of any renown. She is a superstar of such proportions that Seoul street caricaturists trying to lure customers display her image to show their skill.

No figure skater ever has been more celebrated in her home country than Kim is.

"I don't really know why [the Korean people] love me," Kim said. "Maybe it's because figure skating isn't just about who won, it's also artistic.

"People don't just see me when I am figure skating. They also watch the sport and the performance."

Kim's mother struggles with the idea that her daughter is the person whose face is everywhere in South Korea.

"The Yuna I know is the Yuna during training and competition, and that image of her stays with me," Park said. "I can't feel the superstar Yuna with my skin."

As an endorser for Samsung, LG, Hyundai, KB Kookmin Bank (South Korea's national bank), Nike and Korean Air, as well as several other smaller companies, Kim earns a reported $9 million a year. She recently gave $100,000 to a Haiti relief fund, previously had donated $100,000 to buy school uniforms for needy Korean schoolchildren, and she pays for the Korean federation's junior skating program.

Using what it called the "Kim Yuna marketing strategy," Samsung's "Yuna Haptic" mobile phone sold a local record 1 million units in the first seven months after its introduction last May.

It seems a long way from the days when her mother worried about finding the $43 a month for 7-year-old Kim to have private skating lessons near their home in Gunpo.

On her flight to visit Seoul last month as a U.S. public diplomacy envoy, skating legend Michelle Kwan found out what Kim means to her country while talking to a Korean passenger.

"The man told me, 'Yuna is the nation's daughter,' " Kwan said. "We have our Michael Jordans and Michael Phelps and other superstars, but we don't consider them the country's sons or daughters."

There is another dimension to Kim's popularity in Korea, one that has touched off bitter debate on the Internet, where discussions of Kim's technique and personality and those of main rivals Mao Asada and Miki Ando of Japan often are laced with nationalistic vitriol.

Ando won the world title in 2007, Asada in 2008. Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, now retired from competition, is the reigning Olympic champion.

If Kim wins gold, she also will defeat the Japanese.

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