Air conditioner, coffee, and beer
The memory of that February in 2010 is still vivid; as vivid as the color blue of the dress that figure skating star Kim Yu-na wore for her Vancouver Olympic conquest. I was skiing on the slopes of PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, but I hurried down to watch Kim’s freestyle program. She was beautiful and flawless, and one could almost feel the stars in the universe aligning to allow her the Olympic gold.
She triumphed, setting a new world record and also becoming the first skater ever to achieve the sport's grand slam ― winning titles at the World Grand Prix Final, Four Continents Championships, World Championships and Winter Olympics.
One could feel that it was the crystallization of the sweat and blood the then-19-year-old poured in. She must have felt it too, bursting into inexplicable tears after that golden performance. The country and the world fell in love with her, as fans usually do with stellar athletes. And they felt thankful for the adrenalin rush, an excellence that star athletes usually bring.
Two years plus, Kim has largely stayed away from competitive events except for the 2011 International Skating Union (ISU) World Figure Skating Championships in Russia. People have seen more of her on commercials for a variety of products, ranging from air conditioners, coffee and footwear to beer. It was a playful, fun-loving side to the athlete that had shown grit, steel and composure on the ice.
Thus, it was refreshing to see her perform at the “E1 All That Skate Spring 2012” that took place at a specially-made rink at the Olympic Gymnastics Arena in Seoul. She showed the essence of a figure skating star that she is, skillfully, charismatically and gracefully gliding on stage to Michael Buble’s “All of Me” for which she dressed as a man, and Adele’s “Someone Like You,” after which she once again seemed to tear up.
Her presence on the ice is commanding; her appearances on television ads are fun and alluring. For fans, in particular Korean fans, this dichotomy presents a dilemma.
The Olympian, now 21, hasn’t said anything definitive about competing again or about retiring. Home fans appear willing to let Kim decide and enjoy the fruits of Olympic triumph through various other sports. She has often spoken of the hardships of training saying that if she ever had a daughter, she would not let her take up figure skating, if possible.
Yet there is that strong underlying hope that she would compete again at the Olympics, something she must surely feel. Like any sports star of any nation, the mountain of expectation and anticipation heaped on her is great. It’s almost like a big one-sided love.
So when she began promoting Hite, one of the best-selling local beers, it was immediately followed by mixed responses. Numerous Korean stars have promoted alcoholic beverages before but rarely have young star athletes done so. In the beer ad, she is a fun, playful young lady, singing and dancing and waving the beer.
The Korean Academy of Addiction Psychiatry (KAAP) released a statement May 6, raising concerns over top athletes appearing in advertisements for alcoholic beverages and the effect they could have on youngsters. The KAAP called for a government regulation to prevent athletes appearing in commercials for alcoholic beverages, like in the United States.
A number of commentators have expressed concern about her beer commercial because of her ability to influence the public. Yet there are also those that ask why sports stars shouldn’t endorse alcoholic beverages without guilt when other celebrities do. It is a natural question in a society where a person who has achieved outstanding stature in his or her field tends to grow into a celebrity whether a politician, professor or athlete.
Against that general trend, the lines between celebrity status and one’s true profession can blur and be confusing. Perhaps the KAAP’s statement is a good reminder against the trend.