Tomas Verner became an unwitting centre of controversy in his native Czech Republic after competing in a recent show in North Korea. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)
Balancing on the thin edge of a steel blade is only part of the challenge of figure skating. Having to keep the emotional, physical and mental balance in check is what allows a skater to achieve his or her optimum potential.
At this point in the season, a couple of weeks away from the world championships in Tokyo, this optimum is the goal of every skater.
Sitting across a table from the 2008 European champion from the Czech Republic, Tomas Verner, the pain of being temporarily knocked off balance is etched on his face.
Returning to his training base in Canada after a tour in Asia that included three shows in North Korea, he found himself vilified in the Czech press and hated by many of his Czech fans.
It has been a devastating blow.
Verner accepted an invitation to perform in Pyongyang as part of the 20th anniversary of a cultural arts festival that coincides with the birthday of the country's leader, Kim Jong-il. In Verner's mind, this was just another invitation and a chance to perform his programs in front of a live audience one more time before worlds.Sanctioned show
Verne admitted to hemming and hawing about going, but once it was confirmed that he would be part of an elite international group of skaters, he agreed. The invitation was vetted through his national figure skating association. In fact, every year for the past few, the Czech Figure Skating Association has received invitations for skaters to participate in this show, although this year's invitation came through the Stars on Ice promotion.
The show was also sanctioned by the International Skating Union because, after all, North Korea is a card carrying member of the organization.
Verner was interested to see how the country had changed in the years since competing at the Paektusan Prize International competitions and acknowledges that there are differences. For instance, where there was only one flight a week in and out of the country from Beijing, there are now two. He was interested to see a full plane that included tourists who were curious about the country and not simply people with a business purpose of some kind.
For the 10 days he was in the country, Verner had to relinquish his cell phone, and there was no access to the internet.
There is an international compound area where foreigners live and socialize. One night, some of the foreign skaters went as a group to a local restaurant for dinner. They had the chance to talk with other foreigners working in the country for the EU or UNICEF or the UN, and Verner was interested to hear about their experiences. He felt good about the difference that these people were trying to make and offered that by being part of the show, in their own way, the skaters were doing the same.
"I can't do much, I can only skate, and so I brought a little bit of the skating world to the people who don't seem to have a connection to the rest of the world," Verner says.Cold reception from ambassador
The Czech ambassador to North Korea was also at the restaurant that night. Not all countries enjoy 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 says. "People from back home had been calling to ask him about my appearance in the show.
"He [told them] that it was a show by invitation only."
Verner feels this gave the impression that he was performing simply for the elite, and that the show was part of a celebration of the totalitarian regime.
In his mind, nothing could be further from the truth. This festival show had three performances, the first of which seemed to be for invitees, whereas the final two shows seemed to be attended by regular people, enthusiastic in their response. He even saw Russian and Czech flags in the building.
"I wanted to bring some light into the arena," Verner says.Harsh words
The ambassador's response seemed to kick off a furor in the Czech press, and by the time Verner landed in Beijing on Feb. 19, the day after the show finished, he fired up his cell phone and saw that he had missed 35 phone calls and almost as many messages.
Sensing that something was up, he phoned his manager's assistant in Prague, who advised him to do nothing, not return any calls, not speak to the press and not look at any emails until he got back to Canada and they could regroup by phone and decide what to do.
Not understanding the magnitude of what had been going on while he was out of touch, Verner opened some emails and was shocked to find he was being called a "whore" and a "slut" and the "lowest form of human being."
It was a lot to take in. The messages left for him on the guestbook page of his website were just as strong, causing his web administrators to remove some of the more outrageous responses while requesting that fans be respectful whether they agreed or disagreed with his position.
He returned to Canada to train on Feb. 20 and released a statement to the Czech press the following day. His position is that he is a sportsman, not a politician, and that he participated in the show in North Korea as an athlete. The Czech national figure skating federation knew about his participation and neither they nor the ambassador ever advised him that it would be a problem. The Czech Olympic committee stated in the Czech press that, as he wasn't sent in an Olympic context, there was no need for them to review the situation.
He commented more fully
about his experiences in North Korea in a Q&A on his website.
In the wake of all of this publicity, and feeling saddened that he might never again be accepted by his countrymen, Verner has found rediscovering his equilibrium to be difficult.
"I wasn't training very well last week at all," he says. "[Coach] Lori [Nichol] asked me if I was sick or what was wrong."
Little by little, Verner is feeling better as more and more fans come forward on his website and through email messages to say that they support him.
He believes, as do I, that sport can help people set aside their differences.
"If I cannot bring people joy as a skater and performer, than why am I doing this?" he wonders.
Verner saw the joy on the faces of the regular people in the arena during the shows and feels proud of his gift to them. For the moment, though, he doesn't want to talk about this any longer and is hopeful that time will work its magic.
With worlds coming up in two weeks
, he is looking forward to Tokyo and what it might mean to him.
Back to accessibility links