Apolo Anton Ohno: Americans can learn from Olympic culture

By Alex Butler  |  Updated Jan. 18, 2018 at 9:27 PM
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Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Glorious goatees, gold medals and heart-pumping speed-skating bring one man to mind when it comes to legends of the Winter Olympics.

Apolo Anton Ohno is known for his brilliance on the short track, carving ice chips into the air; reaching the podium; beating out opponents and setting world records.

His trademark facial feature isn't quite as luscious as it used to be, but he still reeks of Winter Olympics nostalgia heading into next month's Winter Games, where he will be part of the NBC broadcast team.

Ohno remains the most decorated winter Olympian of all time, last competing in the 2010 Games. But one of the things that stuck strongest with him after he left the ice was friendship. And those friends came from all over the world.

Olympians have a unique opportunity. They hone their skills for years before finally reaching a stage to compete against the world's top athletes. During and after that competition, they experience cultures around the globe.

Ohno believes that cultural experience could benefit all Americans.

"Travel is a luxury. Many people who work hard don't have the ability to travel on an ongoing basis," Ohno told UPI in an interview. "Luckily, now we have the Internet. We have the Olympic Games and we have athletes that go around the world representing us.

"But I think for sure, international cultures are a beautiful thing. The United States has always been a melting pot of all different types of cultures of people and the Olympics is one of those phenomenons that happen once every four years. It is phenomenal. Obviously, my passion is on behalf of the Olympic Games and what that movement stands for."

Ohno, 35, says he has offices around the world and can find friends from his skating days most places he goes.

Going for the Gold

Ohno is working with Hershey to unveil its new Gold product, the fourth flavor in the history of the brand. He will appear in ads for the product in February and throughout the Winter Games. Prior to Apolo's spot airing on Feb. 5, the brand will premiere a series of "every day" ads promoting the product.

"I think that the new millennial generation is wanting to know more about what's happening in the games," Ohno said. "They don't know when to access it. They aren't sure what it's really about. What it symbolizes. Do they resonate with it? I think these things all click the check boxes. That's why campaigns like Hershey are fun."

Ohno, who jokingly said he used to eat chocolate bars before, during and after competing, said that he thought it was needed for a "quintessential American brand" like Hershey to put support behind Team USA.

"Especially in times now where there is so much separation amongst the different belief systems in the United States," he said.

Ohno won two gold medals, two silver medals and four bronze medals in his Winter Games tenure.

On the same team

"The Olympic Games is that one kind of sporting event that unifies our country and says that we cheer for one flag, one countryman, one group regardless of where you are from in the country and what your beliefs are," Ohno said.

He now sees the games from a different lens, but he can still feel the patriotism, camaraderie and most of all, unity.

While other athletes and fan bases exhort energy to consider their hatred for opponents, the Olympics are about nations banding together for a greater goal and representing one's country.

"That's the beautiful thing about the Olympic Games," Ohno said. "No matter where they are being held, Korea or Salt Lake City or Russia, Vancouver, Italy or wherever, it is that once every four years moment where every American watches and they cheer for their countrymen. We unitarily cheer for the same team. It's no longer east vs. west. It's no longer who's going to win the Eastern Conference or Western Conference. It's about this one sole purpose and I think that definitely brings the athletes closer. It definitely brings people closer because we are all cheering for the same team."

Facing Russia and North Korea

The Russian team was banned from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics, but athletes from the country are still allowed to compete if they meet International Olympic Committee standards. The move came after months of investigation into doping in Russia's Olympic sports industry. While many anti-doping agencies have called for a blanket ban on the Russian Olympic Committee, Ohno believes that clean athletes should be allowed to compete.

"Russia has faced a lot of challenges and scrutiny for their program," Ohno said. "At the end of the day, there lots of clean athletes and it's a very complex and convoluted issue because you can't blanket everybody from one country because there was a program or a doping incident or incidents that have happened. So it's really not my place to comment on that, but I'm happy whenever an athlete competes cleanly and fairly."

Ohno said the athletes competing have to focus on what they are doing and things under their control to be as prepared as possible.

When it comes to North Korea athletes competing, Ohno has seen it before. The North Koreans have competed in the Winter and Summer Olympics on many occasions. This year, they are planning to march with South Korea in the opening ceremony.

Ohno said American athletes have "full confidence" in the United States government that they will be supported and protected in South Korea.

"I think the athletes are always focused and locked in," Ohno said. "If there is a threat and that threat is real, being an American, we have full confidence that our government will support us and protect us no matter where we are in the world. We live in a different time now than ever before obviously. But I think even more so now with escalating pressures and conflicts all over the world."

"I won the world championship in Gangneung, [South Korea] in 2008. Eight years ago, I was there and very familiar with the tension escalating at that time. At the end of the day, I think that the athletes will continually keep training. They are there to compete. They understand that there will always be external pressures, but the Olympic Games have been a really strong foundation for allowing the world to kind of take a break and compete and allow those who have expressed themselves in the sport."

The 2018 Winter Olympics begin Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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