MOSCOW — To earn a place on South Korea’s team for next year’s Olympics, you may need to brush up on your singing.
A rendition of the national anthem in front of immigration officials is a daunting but necessary hurdle faced by the many foreign-born athletes seeking to represent the home team at the Pyeongchang Games.
Alexander Gamelin, an ice dancer from Boston, has the anthem memorized and is reading up on Korean culture and history ahead of his immigration interview. The aim is to become a naturalized citizen, then a South Korean Olympian.
“He’s smart. He catches on pretty quick,” said Gamelin’s dance partner, California-born South Korean citizen Yura Min. “Honestly, I think Alex does know more than I do at this point.”
Without much of a winter sports tradition besides speedskating and women’s figure skating, South Korea is eager to use foreign talent to flesh out its Olympic roster.
That means Canadian veterans on the hockey team, a German in luge and Russians in biathlon. Since 2011, 20 athletes have been naturalized, according to the Justice Ministry. Not all will compete at the Olympics and few have hopes of a medal, but they’ll give South Korean fans someone to cheer for in unfamiliar sports.
And when Koreans cheer their own, they really cheer, as Gamelin found when competing in February on the Olympic ice.
“Yura and I were mobbed by all these Korean fans who wanted to take pictures and get autographs,” he said. “It was all a little overwhelming.”
Although Gamelin and Min live and train in the United States, he’s learning Korean at college and hopes to move to the Asian country as a coach in the future.
The last Winter Olympic host country, Russia, also recruited many foreigners ahead of the 2014 Sochi Games. Then the focus was firmly on winning.
Naturalized foreigners had a role in seven of the 13 gold medals which took Russia to the top of the medals table, including team events. One of them, South Korean speedskater Viktor Ahn — formerly Ahn Hyun-Soo — left with three golds.
Biathlete Timofei Lapshin said he’s now known as “the Russian Viktor Ahn” after making the switch in reverse.
Lapshin is a talented athlete, with a smattering of podium finishes on the World Cup circuit, but struggled to make the highly-competitive Russian team. After a super-fast naturalization process — he said the first enquiries were made only in September — he now holds a South Korean passport.
“I only know a few words (of Korean) here and there, but I’ll try to learn it and hope soon I’ll be able to speak,” said Lapshin, who has spent only about two months in his new country because of training and competitions elsewhere.
With Russia mired in doping scandals, including allegations of tampering with Olympic drug tests, there are calls for the country to be banned from next year’s Pyeongchang Games. Lapshin portrays the scandal as politically motivated against Russia.
“I hope that everything will be fine and no one will be suspended,” he said. “Politics shouldn’t be mixed with sport.”
The South Korean Olympic committee said biathlon officials in the country looked into its four new Russian-born biathletes by checking International Biathlon Union records, which showed that none of the four had ever tested positive. However, all four competed at elite level during a time when investigations have found drug use in Russia was rife.
For Lapshin or former world junior luge champion Aileen Frisch, South Korea offers a second chance for stalled careers. For journeyman hockey player Matt Dalton, it’s been an even wilder ride.
Dalton was in Russia during the last Olympics — not in Sochi, but playing for a club in the industrial city of Nizhnekamsk. He was a backup goaltender for the Boston Bruins, but never played a minute in the NHL, so Olympic glory wasn’t even on his radar.
Now, after three seasons in the South Korean league, he’s set to be a starting goaltender at the Olympics. Home fans will know him by the nickname Halla Sung — “protector of the castle.”
“I would have never thought it was possible in a million years,” Dalton said. “(In Russia) I got to see how the country rallies around the Olympics … To be able to be a part of something like that now is pretty special.”
Kim Tong-Hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.
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