Apolo Anton Ohno is headed to the PyeongChang Olympics in February as NBC’s short track speed skating expert, which makes total sense. He has, of course, won eight Olympic medals in the sport — two gold, two silver and four bronze.
But the Games are in South Korea, where Ohno is not exactly popular. Where he became, in fact, remarkably unpopular after the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“I was the second-most hated person in Korea. Second,” Ohno said. “Number One was Osama Bin Laden. That’s not a joke.”
Nope. It’s absolutely true.
In 2003, a South Korean company produced and marketed toilet paper with Ohno’s face on it.
Yup. That’s also true.
“I did not receive any royalties from that,” Ohno said with a smile.
The toilet paper was, at least, considerably more benign than the video game that allowed players to shoot Ohno in the head.
Seriously. That happened.
“Yeah, it was crazy,” Ohno understated.
All this stemmed from events at the Salt Lake Winter Games. In 2002, 19-year-old Ohno won a gold medal in the 1,500 and a silver in the 1,000 and was all boyish enthusiasm about his success — which rubbed South Koreans the wrong way, considering how he won.
“My first [Olympic] medal I ever received was in Salt Lake City on home soil, so it was something that was much bigger than me,” he said.
But his gold for the 1,500 came after Ohno raised his hands in protest in the final, drawing attention to what he felt was blocking by South Korean Kim Dong-Sung — and Kim was disqualified for that offense.
The South Koreans protested loud and long. And unsuccessfully. Korean fans crashed the Olympic email server. Ohno received death threats.
The U.S. team did not compete at the 2003 World Championships in South Korea because of continuing threats gainst Ohno’s life. Because, apparently, South Korea could not guarantee his safety.
Fifteen years later, the retired American skater is philosophical about all of that.
“Look, Korean people are very passionate about sports and short-track speed skating,” he said, attributing the anger against him to frustration over the South Koreans’ lack of success in Salt Lake City.
“They came home with zero medals on the men’s side, and they took that very personally,” Ohno said. The American teams “didn’t go to Korea for about a year-and-a-half after the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. But we went back. And I’ve had a great relationship with the Koreans ever since.
“The rivalry with the Korean was always front-and-center, but my relationship with the Korean athletes was very, very good. Without them, I would never have reached the level of performance I was at. So we needed each other.”
But has the anger and resentment the South Koreans fans held for him passed?
“Yes and no,” said Ohno, who travels there frequently without any difficulties. But he said that he’s often approached by Koreans who want to talk to him about what happened at the 2002 Games, “so it was just as if it happened yesterday.”
But he’s thinking that will be a good thing in 2018 — that he will be able to make NBC’s short-track coverage “so much more exciting because I will be there, and people do know my face, and they do recognize me. Obviously, my hair is much shorter, but it’s going to be an exciting time.
“I can’t wait.”
Scott D. Pierce covers TV for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.