Has father won an Olympic prize: his long lost son?
Tuesday 21 February 2006
But the current winter games in Turin have served another extraordinary purpose: as a possible re-uniter of a top American skier with his long-lost birth-parents living half a world away.
Last week, Toby Dawson, a Korean-American with Elvis-sized sideburns and daredevil skills to match, won the bronze medal in the men's freestyle moguls. His heroics made headlines in the US. In distant Busan, South Korea, they created a sensation.
After watching the event, friends and relatives of Kim Jae-su called him to say that Dawson looked exactly like the son Kim had lost in 1981, when the two-year-old boy became separated from his mother in the town's market. His father never set eyes on him again. Until, perhaps, now.
"I looked at the pictures in the papers and confirmed it myself, the 52-year-old told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. "There is no doubt this is the son I lost 25 years ago." And the circumstantial evidence cannot lightly be set aside.
For one thing, the toddler who became Toby Dawson was found near the same marketplace. The person who found him left him outside a police station. After his parents could not be found, he was placed in an orphanage, where he was adopted by Americans Mike and Deborah Dawson, ski instructors at the US winter sports mecca of Vail, Colorado.
Kim and his wife, meanwhile, had searched everywhere for their tiny son. "I didn't think reporting it to the police would be of any help, so I went around looking for him myself," Kim said.
The couple combed the orphanages and markets of Busan, but progress was slow. They could only do their searching on days off from work. Of very modest means, they had to get around on foot or by bus. By the time they had covered every possibility, the boy was 8,000 miles away at a new home in the US.
Worse, the disaster led to fights between Kim and his wife, and ultimately to their divorce. South Korea's bureaucracy added insult to injury. The couple never filed a missing persons report, Kim said. "So seven or eight years ago we got his summons to present himself for physical examination for military duty."
In the meantime, the boy now called Toby did what almost every one else did in his new home town in the Rockies: he learnt to ski.
Disorientated and traumatised when he arrived in the US, the boy used skiing as a means of expressing himself. "I was definitely more aggressive in that area of my life because I was so shy otherwise," Dawson told NBC last week, explaining how he was drawn to moguls - where self-confidence is not an option, but essential to perform at all.
By 2004 he had made his breakthrough, winning three World Cup events. For fans he was simply "Awesome Dawson". For lovers of ski movies his fearless, take-no-prisoners style earned him spots in a host of documentaries by the acclaimed film-maker Warren Miller.
But all the while, curiosity about his roots grew. Each summer of late he has spent time as a counsellor at the Korean Heritage Camp for Adoptive Families, designed to promote awareness and pride in Korean culture. He also posted photos of himself as a little child on his website, in the hope his real parents might identify themselves. "I've been struggling with this a lot," Dawson said last week. "Many people have been asking me about this. I have had people claim they are my biological parents; I've had random calls. So I'll take this process very slowly - we'll see."
But the pace may be about to speed up dramatically. Back in Busan, Kim said he could hardly wait to see the ski star he insists is his son. He says he is willing to undergo a DNA test to prove his paternity. If that proves positive, then his own and Toby Dawson's long search will be over.
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