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South Korea Energized by Figure Skater's Olympic Debut

  • Kurt Achin

South Korea's Olympic figure skater, Kim Yuna

South Korea's Olympic figure skater, Kim Yuna

South Korea is ablaze with excitement for the Olympic debut on Wednesday, Feb. 24 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 Yuna fever.

Even before her first Olympic games, Kim Yu-Na had become marketing gold. Nike is just one brand hitching its wagon to the 19-year-old superstar.

Her nickname here in South Korea is "Queen Yu-Na" - and the government has printed a stamp in her honor. Her image is splashed everywhere.

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 Yu-Na is estimated to have made between $7 and $9 million in promotional fees last year.

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 Yuna's youngest idolizers have come to be known here as "Yuna Kids." A number of South 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 Yu-Na craze. They say parents are spending more on braces - the same kind that gave Yu-Na her prize-winning smile.

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