When Aileen Frisch of Germany became the world junior luge champion in 2012, it might have seemed that her Olympic future was set. It was, but for a country she never expected — South Korea.
After South Korea won hosting rights to the 2018 Winter Games in 2011, the country needed to turn Pyeongchang, a little-known hamlet 100 miles east of Seoul, into a winter sports capital capable of staging competitions in 15 sports and housing 3,000 athletes and thousands more Olympic officials, journalists and visitors. It also needed a luge team.
South Korea has experienced limited Olympic success in winter sports. Of its 53 medals, 42 have come in short-track speedskating, nine in long-track speed skating and two in figure skating. None have come in the sliding sports of bobsled, luge or skeleton.
So South Korea has followed a familiar strategy for host nations that do not excel at winter sports and do not want to be embarrassed before a home audience: It went shopping, hiring a number of foreign coaches and granting citizenship to athletes from other countries. South Korea found a luger from Germany. Hockey players from the United States and Canada. Biathletes from Russia. A cross-country skier from Norway. An ice dancer from Boston.
The strategy fostered cultural resentment and awakening. All told, 19 athletes were granted citizenship by South Korea on its team of 144 participants in the Winter Games, which begin in earnest on Friday. A 20th athlete was granted citizenship for the Paralympics in March, but was later not selected for the team .
While precise statistics are not kept, this appears to be the largest number of athletes naturalized by the host country of a Winter Games, according to Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian from the United States who keeps a database of roughly 140,000 athletes.
Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter permits athletes to change their nationalities, but they must generally wait three years before participating for a second nation in the Games, unless the rule is waived.
Some naturalized South Korean athletes have birth or familial ties to the country and have gained dual citizenship. Others are essentially Olympic mercenaries, including Frisch, who had mixed feelings about competing for South Korea when the host nation initially approached her.
I didn’t feel Korean, I didn’t speak Korean,” she said in a telephone interview. “It sounded a little crazy.”
Germany dominates luge the way the University of Connecticut dominates women’s college basketball. The country has four luge tracks, and nearly a quarter of the world’s courses for elite competitions. The success is a remnant of the country’s Cold War divide. Of the 129 Olympic medals awarded in luge since 1964, 75 have been won by East or West Germans or athletes from the unified team.
At the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, German lugers won all four available gold medals. Frisch failed to make that sliding team. Competition and pressure are immense to make the country’s Olympic squad. Discouraged, she retired in 2015 at age 22.
“It was frustrating,” Frisch, now 25, said. “I didn’t have much fun anymore.”
Then came an unexpected call.
South Korea’s luge federation hired a German, Steffen Sartor, to be its national coach in preparation for the Olympics. And Sartor contacted Frisch in late 2015 to gauge her interest in competing for South Korea in the Games. Her first response was no.
In early 2016, a second entreaty came. This time Frisch reconsidered. She missed traveling and competing. And she was drawn to South Korea’s history of existing on a divided peninsula. In some ways, it resembled Germany’s own rived past.
“I liked the idea of becoming Korean,” Frisch said.
She took 40 hours of language, history and cultural lessons from a teacher in Germany, then moved to South Korea and immersed herself in the language and the culture. At first, some South Korean lugers were wary of her presence, Frisch said.
“I got the feeling that some of my teammates thought I should have not come to Korea,” she said. “They thought I’m just a foreigner and were afraid I would take their place. They did not see that I could also help them to become better.”
In December 2016, Frisch received South Korean citizenship after passing an interview where she answered questions about Korean historical figures and sang the country’s national anthem. She also got better at luge.
“I’m having fun again,” Frisch said. “I reached skills I never had in Germany.”
While in South Korea, Kling has attempted to meet her biological parents. These are never easy decisions for children who have been adopted, she said, describing the search as “tiring” from an emotional and procedural standpoint.