Nothing verifies the claims of my last two posts about the jingoism and politicization of world sport as much as the national euphoria here that greeted Yuna Kim’s Olympics victory last week. Koreans reacted to her medal the same way Americans did to the US hockey’s team 1980 victory – it became a banner symbol of national greatness in world society. Kim has become not an image of skating beauty, but rather the latest capture of an unrelated event to serve Korea’s near obsessive effort to be noted in the world politics. This is how states reinforce themselves in the era of globalization, and this is how middle powers tell the world to pay attention to them.
Here are just a few headlines, to remind you that her victory is not just a gold medal, but a “world historic event,” as one Korean put it to me:
“Yuna Becomes ‘Golden Queen’: Kim Yu-na’s Olympic triumph cements her status as the megastar of figure skating and the sport’s most transcendent personality since Germany’s Katarina Witt.”
“Beyond Perfection: Fascinating the world with dazzling performance”
“Kim Yu-na: Figure skating queen aids Korea’s Olympic dreams”
“Korea Energized by Figure Skater’s Olympic Debut: Korea is ablaze with excitement”
This sort of purple rhetoric should convince anyone of the way the state instrumenatlizes sports for nationalist assertion. Kim is a fine athlete obviously. But the far more interesting story for a political scientist is the way her victory was ‘captured’ for the interest of state and nation. Indeed so fanatical have Koreans become about Kim, that she now practices mostly in Canada in order to avoid the cult of personality that has grown up around her.
Maybe I’m Huntington’s flimsy de-nationalized globalist, but I can’t help but find this sort of adulation extremely discomforting, and not just as foreigner living here. Aren’t modern, liberal states supposed to outgrow this sort of clannishness? Aren’t cults of personality, uncritical coverage of national ‘heroes,’ and jingoistic assertions of the ‘world’s joy’ over an athlete (?!) a sign of political immaturity and hard-edged nationalism, the sort of thing we associate with dictatorships banking on nationalism as a legitimizing ideology?
My sense is that if Korea really wants to be taken by the rest of the world as a serious, perhaps even leading, member of the G20, this sort of nationalism will need to fade. Like much of East Asia, Korea is torn between a deeply held nationalist narrative of its uniqueness (frequently drifting into racial blood-and-soil narratives of the minjok), and the desire to be cosmopolitan and open to world of globalization (‘Global Korea‘). (China too has the struggle, between the CCP’s growing racialization of Han ethnicity, and the need for Walmart and more FDI.) Yuna Kim embodies both of these trends, as she is both instrumentalized for Korean national purposes (carrying the flag everywhere, eg), yet also reasonbly fluent in English. It is not clear to me which way Koreans want to go.