Speed Skating and Death Threats

Believe it or not, this is not a rant.

If I were going to rant about anything related to the Sochi Olympics, it would be Russia’s headfirst leap back into the Middle Ages in terms of its homophobic legislation, and the disgusting way the IOC caved to the Russian state’s barbaric laws. But I’m not watching the Sochi Olympics, so it’s not so much on my radar.

But the other day I had an interesting, somewhat frustrating discussion, but ultimately (maybe) helpful discussion with a student the other day about the recent twittermobbing and threatening of Scottish speed skater Elise Christie (apparently) by Korean Netizens.

(He seemed to think that she deserved the [alleged] threats and mobbing, though he was unable to explain whether it was her mid-event flub, or her (possibly clueless) avowed confusion over her disqualification, that made her deserving of threats on her Twitter feed from strangers on the other side of the Earth. He insisted that she ought to have apologized, though he wasn’t really sure for what.

He only really changed his mind–sort of–when I brought up that Italian “netizens” hadn’t behaved that way (despite an Italian being knocked down too), and when I asked, “If it was the Korean speedskater who’d fallen and knocked over Elise Christie, and if she’d said, ‘Why was I disqualified?’ afterward, would you think she deserved Scottish netizens tweeting her death threats and mass abuse?” He said, “Yes, of course!” right away, then thought about it, and sort of backed off.

(By the way, I’ve only seen the threats against Christie characterized as “death threats” in a few news articles. However, since I discuss the case of Apollo Anton Ohno below, “death threats” is in the title.)

Thereafter, we were able to have a more fruitful discussion about Internet vigilantism, research, considering the 5 Ws (Who, What, When, Where, and Why, as well as How) when writing something, always asking oneself the question I learned from Paul Park–“It’s easy to say, but is it true?”–and questioning what might motivate cyber-bullies in Korea and elsewhere. (Oh, and we talked about paying attention to the keywords used in news, like how “bullying” or 중2병 have become major keywords in recent years in English and Korean media, respectively.)

The infamous Dog Poo Girl, probably Korea's most famous case of cyber-bullying. Click for background and source page.
The infamous Dog Poo Girl, probably Korea’s most famous case of cyber-bullying. Click for background and source page.

But the energy it took to get this student to think critically about the idea that something done in the name of nationalist rage might not be justified was pretty immense. A little scary, really.

Ironically, though, what’s really interesting is that a male Korean speed skater, Ho Suk Lee, was found to be at fault in a collision. He made no public apology to America, and though he knocked down a Cuban-American skater, there’s no report of a public apology… or of Americans twitter mobbing (or issuing him death threats online). However, unlike Christie, he accepted it vocally and gracefully–after the decision was made, mind you, but maybe that’s normal practice in Olympic sport.

Somehow, though, I don’t think it’s the graceful acceptance that explains why Americans didn’t twittermob him with death threats.

Oh, and of course, I suppose would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is not the first time Korea has collectively raised up its rage at a foreign speed skater over a disqualification. (Unlike in the Christie case, I know there were death threats issued to Ohno… hell, there were threats issued to many [white] expats I knew in Korea.) I arrived in Korea just before the 2002 Winter Olympics, just in time to see the emotional explosions up close. Things got pretty hairy, people I know were threatened with violence by strangers over the ruling, though the worst I got was sworn and spat at, and flipped the bird, by strangers in passing cars–no, really. It became a years-long grudge, but, well, I said this wouldn’t be a rant. It was odd, really.

Which makes me wonder–and please, if anyone knows, tell me–just how common are collisions and disqualifications in the sport of speed skating?

I get the feeling they’re pretty common, and all this rage over “cheating” and “unfair pushing” probably boils down to people being very angry about a sport without knowing much about the rules, because they only care about it because it’s the Olympics and this is an Issue of National Pride!!!–sort of like how I saw people throwing things at televisions and declaring the judges corrupt during the World Cup over rulings that they didn’t understand primarily because they had never watched an actual soccer game prior to the Korea-Japan World Cup of 2002.

That’s not to dismiss Korea’s strong historical performance in short track speed skating, mentioned in the piece about Ohno, but most people don’t know the rules well enough to be disputing the judges’ rulings… which is one thing when you’re just complaining in front of a TV, but another when you’re issuing death threats via Twitter.

Personally, I don’t know a damned thing about speed skating, except that it seems to make a lot of Koreans really, really angry with a certain degree of regularity.

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