When Tomáš Verner accepted an invitation to perform at the 20th Paektusan Prize International Figure Skating Festival in February, he had no idea of the furor it would cause in his Czech homeland.
Returning to Canada after an Asian tour that included three shows in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, he found himself vilified in the Czech press and scorned by many of his Czech fans. It was a devastating blow for Verner, who viewed the festival as a chance to perform his programs in front of a live audience one more time prior to Worlds.
He hesitated when the invitation, vetted through his national figure skating association, was initially extended, but once it was confirmed that he would be part of an elite group of international skaters, he agreed.
Over the years, the Czech Figure Skating Association has received many invitations for skaters to participate in these shows. This year the invite was extended through International Management Group (IMG). The event was also sanctioned by the International Skating Union, of which North Korea is a card-carrying member.
Verner was interested to see how the country had changed in the years since he competed at the Paektusan Prize International competitions. He acknowledged things are very different these days. Where there was only one flight a week in and out of the country between Beijing and Pyongyang, there are now two. He noted that his flight was full and included tourists who were curious about the country and not simply people on a business trip.
He also had to relinquish his cell phone upon arrival and had no Internet access for 10 days.
One evening some of the skaters dined at a restaurant in the international compound, where they had the chance to socialize with foreigners who work for various aid agencies such as UNICEF.
Verner said he felt good about the difference that these people are trying to make and that by performing in the shows, the skaters, in their own way, were doing the same. “I can’t do much, I can only skate. So I brought a little bit of the skating world to people who don’t seem to have a connection to the rest of the world,” Verner said.
As fate would have it, the Czech ambassador was also at the restaurant that night. Not all countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea, but the Czech Republic does, and when Verner was asked if he would like to meet the ambassador, he said yes. “The ambassador, instead of shaking my hand, told me I had been causing him trouble,” Verner recalled. “People back home had been calling to ask him about my appearance in the shows. He said that they were shows by invitation only.”
The ambassador left Verner with the impression that he was performing only for the elite and that the event was part of a celebration of the totalitarian regime. Verner saw it differently. Of the three performances, only the first seemed to be for invitees. The final two shows were attended by the public, and Verner noted there were Russian and Czech flags in the building.
The Czech press went into overdrive. When Verner landed back in Beijing, he fired up his cell phone and saw that he had missed 35 calls and almost as many messages. Sensing something was wrong, he called his manager in Prague, who advised him not to read any e-mails, return any calls or speak to the press.
Not understanding the magnitude of what had been going on while he was incommunicado, Verner was shocked when he read his e-mails, some of which contained degrading language.
The messages left on his guestbook were equally offensive, causing his web administrator to remove some of the more outrageous posts and request that fans be respectful whether they agreed or disagreed with his position.
Back in Canada, Verner released a statement to the Czech press stating that his position is as a sportsman and not a politician.
In the wake of the negative publicity, Verner was deflated and wondered if he would ever again be accepted by his countrymen. “I wasn’t training very well at all after this happened. Lori [Nichol] asked me if I was sick or what was wrong,” he said, admitting the matter had upset his equilibrium.
Verner is rebounding and hopes time will work its magic. He said he is feeling better as more fans come forward in support of him. Courtesy cbc.ca
Originally published in June 2011