Russia drugs scandal ruins homecoming for Olympic star An

Jung Ha-Won
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Russia's speed skating star Victor An has been banned from the Pyeongchang Winter Games after being implicated in a state-sponsored doping scandal

He won multiple speed skating golds for South Korea and Russia, and was hailed as a corruption whistleblower along the way, but Victor An's Olympic career has ended ignominiously in the aftermath of a doping scandal.

An, a former South Korean who switched his allegiance to Russia in 2011 after bitter disputes with Seoul's skating authorities, has six short-track Olympic golds under his belt -- three as a Korean and three as a Russian.

He hoped to compete in his birth country at next month's Pyeongchang Winter Games under a neutral Olympic flag -- which would have been his third emblem at the Games -- after the Russian team was banned over a state-sponsored doping scandal.

It would have been an emotionally charged climax to the seven-times world champion's stellar but tumultuous Olympic career.

Instead the International Olympic Committee -- which required individual Russians who wanted to compete to pass a unique set of anti-doping tests -- did not include him among those selected, according to Moscow sports authorities.

His father insisted Wednesday that he was clean.

"My son never touched drugs," Ahn Ki-Hyun told South Korea's MBC Sports Plus online magazine "Since he was child he didn't even take medicine even when he caught a cold."

The skater's lawyer has told Russian media there would not be time to appeal before the Games, but Ahn said his son would still take his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

"This is about his honour," he added.

"He wanted to compete at the last Olympics of his life in the country where he was born. He just wanted a beautiful end to all this."

- Hero whistleblower -

Born Ahn Hyun-Soo, the 32-year-old started skating aged eight, sweeping medals at competitions at home and abroad and going to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City aged just 16.

He came back without a medal after he and three of the four other racers were brought down in a pile-up -- not uncommon in short-track -- on the last bend of the men's 1,000 metres final.

Even so he won the overall title at the next five world championships in a row, along with three golds at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino -- the 1,000m, 1,500m and 5,000m relay -- plus a bronze.

An became the face of short-track in South Korea, a powerhouse in the sport.

But the glory did not last long.

A 2008 knee injury needed multiple operations, leaving him unable to compete for more than a year, and he was embroiled in a bitter and very public dispute with the Korea Skating Union and its coaches.

An's father -- who also acted as his agent -- claimed some skaters collaborated to hamper rivals and prevent them winning competitions at home and abroad.

An himself has accused coaches of ordering racers to fix results to allow favoured athletes to qualify for major events or win medals.

"I was once ordered to 'help' a senior skater win a gold medal at a competition... and was hit when I refused," he told a 2015 television interview.

The row made An something of a hero whistleblower who helped expose corruption and factionalism in the South's skating set-up.

But he found himself isolated in the close-knit skating community and his career stalled. In 2010 he was not selected for the Vancouver Winter Olympics and his professional team disbanded.

Looking for a way back to the arena, the following year he accepted an offer from Moscow to become a Russian citizen.

South Korean law does not allow dual nationality, and he forfeited his original passport by doing so.

"I did not know I would lose my South Korean citizenship," he once revealed. "It was my fault. But it was my decision anyway.

"I just needed an environment where I could continue to do what I liked the most -- skating," he added.

- 'Weird' anthem -

Although short-track speed skating had been an obscure sport in Russia, An won his new compatriots' hearts with his modest demeanour and stunning medal haul when the country hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- golds in the 500m, 1,000m, and 5,000m relay, plus a bronze.

"It felt weird listening to the Russian national anthem after winning medals at Sochi," he once admitted. "I think it would feel even weirder in Pyeongchang."

But in the wake of the IOC decision, questions will now inevitably be asked whether his comeback was artificially assisted.

Comments on South Korean social media were mixed on Wednesday, with some saying that the facts remained unclear, and others expressing dismay.

"I rooted for him all the time even when people criticised him for going to Russia," said one post. "I'm really disappointed at him if he really did drugs."