When the world's top figure skater takes to the ice Tuesday night for the short program and Thursday for the long, it won't be just the Olympic judges scrutinizing her. Kim Yu-na is South Korea's pride and obsession, the country's first front-runner for a marquee Olympic event. Dubbing her the "national little sister" -- a term akin to "America's sweetheart" -- Koreans have been crazy about the elegant teenager for years, collectively holding their breaths every time she launches herself into the air for one of her monster jumps. For many, her dominance signals nothing less than Korea's arrival onto the world stage as a cultural and economic power, after years of chasing its powerhouse Asian neighbors and the West.
Koreans have been obsessed with sports for decades, cheering on the country's athletes with something approaching religious fervor -- see footage of Koreans supporting the Red Devils at the 2002 World Cup, for instance. They become roused when Korea faces down Japan, its occupier from 1910 to 1945 (the competition between Kim and Japanese skating superstars Mao Asada and Miki Ando is particularly fierce).
But Koreans are especially jazzed about Kim and her success because of figure skating's domestic novelty and international glamour. Only 20 years ago, Korea barely had any money for Olympic training. During the games in the 1990s, the country's athletes wore the stoic expressions and utilitarian bowl haircuts of its post-Soviet neighbors. For years, Korean athletes did best in badminton, table tennis, archery, and judo -- workhorse sports that suggested more familiarity with bug juice than champagne. Even today, the country's best sport is women's golf -- with a cavalcade of brutally efficient hard hitters who don't quite win the big Nike contracts.
Korea did not even send a skater to the Turin Olympics in 2006. Now, it has a constantly beaming, individualistic, artistic, lithe, telegenic global superstar in the Winter Olympics' most-watched banner event. What makes Kim's success all the more remarkable is that she became the world's best -- some say perhaps the best ever -- despite the lack of a developed figure-skating infrastructure in Korea. Her parents paid for her training until a few years ago, when Kim commenced her personal gold rush in international competition and garnered notice in her home country. (Korea places great emphasis on child-rearing, and Kim's mother, Park Mi-hee, has become a lionized national hero as well.)