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In Pyeongchang, a surprise visit from South Korean icon Kim Yuna

olympics

In Pyeongchang, a surprise visit from Queen Yuna

For the icon of South Korean sport, not competing at the Olympics has done little to diminish her popularity

Kim Yuna performs before lighting the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang.

To South Koreans, it felt almost like a mirage, the sight of the woman they call Queen Yuna, spinning in brilliant white attire on an ice surface perched high on the side of the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.

The appearance of Kim Yuna at the opening ceremony was notable not merely because Ms. Kim, an icon of South Korean winter sport, then went on to light the Olympic cauldron.

It was also the first time anyone had seen her in skate in years.

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Ms. Kim was once the best in the world, a figure skater who conquered records and was a permanent fixture on podiums through years of competition. She won gold in Vancouver and, in a controversial result, silver in Sochi.

But a few months after skating in Russia, she retired. She was 23. Her farewell skate in May, 2014, was a national event in South Korea.

She just wanted "take rest and have time to think," she said.

Kim Yuna of South Korea celebrates after winning silver at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

It has been a long break. "Her short skate at the opening ceremony was the first skate since," said Koo Dong-hoi, CEO of All That Sports, the management company Ms. Kim formed with her mother. She quit figure skating to focus on university, Mr. Koo said. And, "as you know, she is too old to skate," he said.

But at 27, Ms. Kim is the same age as Canada's Patrick Chan and nearly four years younger than Carolina Kostner, both of whom are skating at Pyeongchang. Kurt Browning, now 51, and Elvis Stojko, now 45, still skate professionally.

To those accustomed to athletes performing long past their prime for love and money, Ms. Kim's willingness to hang up her skates was befuddling.

"It was really sad for me," said David Wilson, who was a choreographer for Ms. Kim when she trained in Canada.

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In South Korea, too, her absence at the Pyeongchang Olympics has been missed, cited by organizers as one reason for the slower pace of ticket sales – nearly 15 per cent remain unsold midway through the first week – and South Korea's muted public interest in holding the Games.

"It would be a much, much more exciting Games with her," said Rocky Yoon, special adviser to the president of the Pyeongchang organizing committee. In South Korea, "Kim Yuna is winter sports. Kim Yuna is Winter Olympics."

Kim Yuna of South Korea performs in Vancouver following the Olympic figure skating competition in 2010.

But Ms. Kim's disappearance from the sport is also a reflection of the unique demands and rewards that define sport and celebrity in South Korea Abroad, Ms. Kim was known as a skater. At home, she was a star, a "national sister" mobbed by fans and corporations alike.

She endorsed Nike, Korean Air, Samsung, Hyundai and numerous others, and reached the pinnacle of sport and celebrity. Estimates of her annual income reached US$16.3-million (U.S.) in 2014, the year Forbes pegged her as the world's fourth-highest-earning female athlete, only one spot down from Serena Williams.

She occupied a spot on the Forbes Korea Power Celebrity top 10 list for six consecutive years. She maintains at least eight sponsorship deals today, Mr. Koo said.

For "Korean advertisers, all their Christmases came at once when Kim Yuna became popular," said James Turnbull, a South Korea-based author who writes about Korean feminism, sexuality and pop-culture.

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By at least one measure, celebrity matters more in South Korea than elsewhere. Roughly 60 per cent of the country's advertisements feature endorsements, some six times higher as those in the United States. Former South Korean advertising executive Bruce Haines once called the country's advertising "beautiful people holding a bottle."

Mr. Turnbull is critical of the unfair standards this imposes. South Korean Ahn Sun-ju was among the best golfers in the world, but South Korean advertisers said she needed plastic surgery if she wanted to appear in commercials.

Ms. Kim, however, "was tailor-made for Korean advertisements," Mr. Turnbull said. She is "young, attractive, photogenic, a figure skater – thin, tall – whose body is the type they want."

"The question isn't so much why she retired so early as why she retired so late," he added. "Because really, did she enjoy what she was doing?"

Indeed, Ms. Kim pulled back from figure skating for nearly a year following the Vancouver Olympics. "Expectations from fans kept growing," she said in 2012. "I was really burdened by them all. I had no idea just how much harder I had to train to stay in form, and I was afraid that I would let so many people down if I made mistakes in competition."

Kim Yuna performs during her farewell ice show in Seoul in 2014.

South Koreans now talk about "Kim Yuna syndrome." It's not a positive condition. It means, "if you achieve your life-long goal at a very early age, then your passion and enthusiasm will vanish," said Roger Park, who studies sport industry and management at Hanyang University.

So there was extra reason for South Koreans to cheer when they saw Ms. Kim back on skates at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.

Wilson, too, couldn't help but smile. Ms. Kim looked like a ballerina on a music box, he said. Or maybe Elsa from the movie Frozen.

"Watching Yuna on her little patch of ice in the sky made me happy. She was beautiful as always and it was a magical moment," he said.

He doesn't begrudge her early retirement. "It's only figure skating so I'm glad she's moved on if that's what makes her happy."

For Ms. Kim, meanwhile, not competing at the Pyeongchang Games has done little to diminish her popularity. It has, instead, rekindled it.

She has been chosen as an honorary ambassador for the Games – and, at least for those few weeks the Olympics is under way, she's back to being the most coveted spokeswoman in South Korea.

"Many people compare her to something like a goddess, not just a skating star," said Shim Chankoo, CEO of Sportizen, a Seoul-based sports marketing and consulting company.

"Even though she stopped skating, it doesn't really matter," he added.


With reporting by Cynthia Yoo

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