Viktor Ahn, the South Korea–born coach of Chinese speed skaters, apologizes for his wife’s Taiwan gaffe

Society & Culture

Given the long-standing rivalry between China and South Korea, Viktor Ahn, who was hired as a technical adviser for the Chinese national short-track team in the lead-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, was a rare South Korean celebrity who enjoyed near unanimous love from Chinese internet users. But no longer.

Viktor Ahn at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Image from Weibo.

The apology came speedily and the reactions were icy.

On Monday, South Korean–born Russian short-track speed skater Viktor Ahn Hyun-soo, who retired in 2020 and later joined the coaching staff for China’s national short-track team, apologized on Chinese social media on behalf of his wife. Her mistake? The website of her beauty brand had described Taiwan as a country. 

“I’m sorry about the lack of management on my family member’s company website and the wrong information shown due to its default settings. The error has been fixed,” Ahn wrote on Weibo (in Chinese). “I had a very pleasant time as a coach in China and I appreciate all the support from speed skating fans and internet users. My family and I firmly respect the one-China policy. I hope for people’s forgiveness.”

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During the week, Ahn found himself on the receiving end of ire from Chinese internet users when they discovered that Nari, a skincare and cosmetics brand founded in 2017 by Ahn’s wife, Woo Na-ri, referred to Taiwan as a country — implying it was independent of China — on its website. As posts about the website circulated on the Chinese internet, comments questioning Ahn’s political stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty quickly escalated into a full-blown cancel campaign against him. 

Taiwan is a self-governing island state with its own democratically elected government, but China considers it a renegade province under its own jurisdiction despite the two sides being ruled separately since the end of a civil war in 1949. In the eyes of Beijing, suggestions of Taiwan’s independence are serious affronts to China’s claims of sovereignty, and it has in recent years increased pressure on international companies and foreign celebrities to recognize its legitimacy. 

Nari also put out a bilingual statement on its website today, writing, in both English and Chinese, that because the website was “built and technically maintained by a third-party company,” Ahn’s wife was unaware of the “false information” before it was brought to her attention. “At the moment, we have asked the third party to correct the error in time and also decided to terminate the cooperation with them,” Nari said in the statement. “Thanks for your criticism and corrections.”

However, many Chinese internet users were dissatisfied with Ahn’s damage control efforts because he stopped short of acknowledging the controversy and owning up to his “mistake” on foreign social media sites. “I hope this is not another apology exclusively for Weibo users. If you truly think you are in the wrong here, please address the issue outside the Chinese internet,” said the most-upvoted comment on Ahn’s apology post, which so far has received nearly 35,000 likes on Weibo. Ahn’s apology also didn’t stop Junlebao, a Chinese dairy products company, from ending (in Chinese) its partnership with the skater as its brand ambassador. 

Some of Ahn’s fans were more forgiving, though. “I don’t think it’s necessary for Ahn, a South Korean, to make statements about China’s sovereignty on Instagram. People need to calm down and move on from this,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

With six Olympic golds under his belt, Ahn, 36, is widely regarded as one of the top performers in his sport’s history. In 2011, after a falling-out with the South Korean skating federation, the short-track speed skating star left his birth country, became a Russian citizen, and competed for his adopted homeland at the Sochi Games. In the lead-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Ahn was hired as a technical adviser for the Chinese national short-track team. At the Games, Ahn helped Chinese skaters bag four medals, a satisfying result that earned Ahn an outpouring of accolades on Chinese social media. Given the long-standing rivalry between China and South Korea, which have clashed frequently over military matters and ownership of cultural heritage like kimchi, Ahn was a rare South Korean celebrity who enjoyed near unanimous love from Chinese internet users. But no longer. 

It’s unclear whether Chinese sports authorities will continue working with Ahn. According to several Chinese news outlets (in Chinese), Ahn’s contract with the Chinese national short-track team ended in February and he has moved back to South Korea. When asked about his next step after the Beijing Winter Games, Ahn previously said that he would focus on his family in the near future. 

Ahn is far from the first person or company to antagonize Chinese internet users when it comes to China’s claim to Taiwan and other matters of sovereignty and territory. In recent years, a flurry of foreign celebrities and international brands issued public apologies for crossing Beijing’s political lines. Among them is American action-movie actor and professional wrestler John Cena, who felt the need to film himself professing his love for China in Mandarin after describing Taiwan as a country in a promotional video for his 2021 film Fast & Furious 9.