Korea Energized by Figure Skater's Olympic Debut

Korea is ablaze with excitement for the Olympic debut on Wednesday of Kim Yu-na -- a widespread favorite to bring back the country's first gold medal in figure skating. The corporate world has already caught "Yu-na fever."

Even before her first Olympic games, Kim had become marketing gold. Nike is just one brand hitching its wagon to the 19-year-old superstar. Technology giant Samsung named a mobile phone after her. You can enjoy specially created Kim Yu-na fruit smoothies. And stay cool while you drink them with air conditioners that she endorses. All told, Kim is estimated to have made between US$7 and $9 million in promotional fees last year.

Kim Yu-na performs in the ladies singles figure skating short program at the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Wednesday. /Yonhap Kim Yu-na performs in the ladies' singles figure skating short program at the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Wednesday. /Yonhap

Won Young-shin is a professor of sports and leisure at Seoul's Yonsei University. She says Kim's rare combination of technical and artistic skill has fueled her success. But, she adds, there is even more to it. "She knows how to behave herself as a star. In a capitalistic society, she knows how to leverage her own marketing power, and not only manage her image, but adjust it flexibly to different circumstances. In Korea, just about everyone sees her as an idol," she said.

Some of Kim's youngest idolizers have come to be known here as "Yu-na Kids." A number of Korean parents are pouring money into figure skating lessons, hoping to cultivate the next Kim Yu-na.

Skating coach Choi In-hwa says there are parallels between the new skating trend and the country's pressure-cooker educational system. "Some of the kids just love reading or music, but their parents force them to the ice rink, and shout at them for not concentrating enough. Typical Korean education fever has become sports fever. Some kids even start crying after being scolded by their moms," he said.

Orthodontists have also apparently benefited from the Kim craze. They say parents are spending more on braces -- the same kind that gave Kim her prize-winning smile.

VOA News / Feb. 25, 2010 10:49 KST