Kim Yu-Na's Gold Had Historical Importance

As the Vancouver Olympics come to a close, the word I'd immediately ascribe to these games would be pleasant. No major international political dramas or ugly incidents - save for the horrific accident of the Georgian luger - have cast even the slightest shadow over the athletic competition, allowing the games to proceed unimpeded without any unwelcome crisis. This has actually been more of the exception than the rule when it comes to the Olympics.

Obviously, the Olympics and politics have always intersected through the years. Be it the horror of Munich in 1972, the personal displays of protest by the United States track team members Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City games, or the United States vs. USSR Cold War battlefield that the Olympics turned into in the 1980's, or even the only-in-America histrionics of that tabloid queen Tanya Harding in 1994 there's been a consistent backdrop of political and personal tension since the games began more than a hundred years ago.

But this isn't to say there weren't any significant - however understated - geopolitical narratives being scripted in Canada these past two weeks. And why not? After all how could one not expect some sort of nationalistic fervor emerging from an event that pits nations against one another?

The most notable of which involved Kim Yu-Na and her inspiring, record shattering gold medal performance in the marquee sport of the games, women's figure skating. Though she was the formidable favorite heading into the event, Kim had to compete knowing that she skated with the pressure of an entire nation practically staking its national pride on her graceful and powerful shoulders. And to top it off she had to fend off a challenge by fellow 19 year old and chief rival Mao Asada - the two were born just days apart - from Japan.

NBC provided ample coverage of the rock-star celebrity status that Kim enjoys - or should I say endures - in her home country. The network showed the stress that she indeed feels as Kim described how staying in Korea was too difficult and that by living in Canada while being coached by former Olympian Brian Orser has provided her with the crucial solace she so desperately needs to compete at her best.

But what NBC and many other media outlets failed to do was illuminate just how much it meant for South Korea to claim victory in a sport with a Japanese competitor as the runner-up. Perhaps NBC felt it unwise to dive into a deep, nationalistic feud on the other side of the world. Yes, a few NBC announcers spoke of the "tension" between the two countries but no background was given. This was a mistake.

After all in 1980 we here in American heard endlessly of how an increasingly vulnerable United States' morale was at an all-time low as it dealt with a failing economy and the brutal humiliation of those taken hostage in Iran and how the USA hockey team's storied defeat of the Russians provided a rallying point, a confidence boost to our citizenry.

Now, I'm not for adding undue drama in sports as the on-field happenings are really all that matter and form the core of any story. But it would have been instructive for the network to talk about why it was such a big deal, why there exists this tension between Japan and Korea. I doubt that most viewers in this country were cognizant of the reasons.

In short, the Japanese occupation of Korea and the atrocities they committed, most notably the hundreds of thousands of "comfort women" (mainly from Korea and China) that their military used as slaves during World War II and the nation's refusal to fully admit and apologize for such wrongdoing is very palpable, recent history in Korea.

And there are also Olympic incidents one can look back to that provide even more competitive fodder for Korea. In the 1936 Olympics, the great Korean marathoner Sohn Kee-Chung was the first Korean to win a gold medal in an Olympics. Yet, since this was during the Japanese occupation he had to compete under the Japanese flag and, even more demeaning, with a Japanese name.

Unless I missed it, none of this was given the attention it deserved.

To her credit, Kim never focused on her main rival as she repeatedly said that she was up against a bevy of talented athletes from around the world, not just from across the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea as Koreans refer to it). And with each succeeding generation, memories will dim and old hatreds and resentments will hopefully disappear. The chain of suppression, violence and occupation is a never-ending one and no nation is entirely innocent. After all, the United States doesn't erupt with prideful glee every time it defeats Great Britain, their 18th century oppressors.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports. His work has also appeared in,, and Tennis Week. Email:

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