A lot of things went right for Apolo Ohno during his 2002 Winter Olympic debut. On the ice he won gold and silver medals in short-track speed skating, propelling the popularity of the hypnotically dangerous sport, in which athletes whirl around a 111-m oval with no lane markers while wearing 25-cm razor blades on their feet. Off the ice his wisp of a soul patch and X Games 'tude helped him dominate the event known as Olympic buzz. He was so popular in Salt Lake City that even female fans wore fake Ohno patches; afterward he was named one of People's 50 Most Beautiful. The only thing that could have made his experience better was more medals and fewer death threats.
The Olympics might have made Ohno a hero in the U.S., but in South Korea he became a marked man when he was awarded the 1,500-m gold after Kim Dong Sung was disqualified for obstructing his path. (While trying to pass Kim, Ohno made an exasperated gesture that helped draw the referee's eye to the infraction.) Short-track skating is an obsession in Korea, and had Ohno been, say, Italian, his disputed victory might have made him a target of mere outrage. But at the time, tensions with U.S. soldiers based in Korea were escalating, and the undercurrent of anti-Americanism was hardly ameliorated by the fact that Ohno is half Japanese. Korea is a former Japanese colony, and many Koreans still feel deep resentment toward the country.
Any hope that the antipathy was restricted to an irrational few or might blow over after the Games disappeared. In a poll taken before Korea was a co-host of the 2002 football World Cup, Ohno topped Osama bin Laden as the person Koreans least wanted to attend. Neither showed.
For nearly four years, it wasn't safe for Ohno to skate in Korea, but in October he arrived in Seoul for a short-track World Cup event. At the airport he was greeted by 100 police in riot gear (for his protection), and at the rink he was disqualified for pushing, delighting the packed house. Otherwise, things couldn't have gone more smoothly. "No death threats while I was in Korea nor leading up to the competition," says Ohno. "Actually, a very high-ranking Korean speed-skating official was telling me that I may have sparked a fan club! How cool is that?"
Not everyone in Korea is sold on Ohno. "I know that the Korean public wants revenge," says top Olympic challenger Ahn Hyun Soo. But Ahn insists he wants to beat Ohno only because the American is the top dog, not because he's American.
Ohno remains a medal favorite in each of short track's three individual events, although he'll face tough competition from Ahn, China's Li Jiajun and Canada's Mathieu Turcotte. Still, in a sport that's dangerous enough, here's hoping the scariest action in Torino stays on the ice.