ICE BREAKERS

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ICE BREAKERS

Figure skating may be the darling of most Winter Olympics fans, but not in Korea. Once the Games begin in Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 8, Koreans will again fall in love with short track speed skating ?the only sport at which Koreans have won Winter Olympic gold medals.

What is short track - It's the little brother of, well, long track. Together, the two competitions make up Olympic speed skating events.

While figure skating offers grace, beauty and, at times, movie-star drama, short track speed skating has all the thrills of roller derby: blinding speed, bruising contact and nasty spills.

Just before the starting gun, body-suited short trackers line up in a clump crouched so low that their chins barely clear the ice. When the race begins, competitors explode forward, digging their toes into the ice and sprinting before gliding into a furious line that snakes around a 111-meter oval for a 500-meter, 1,000-meter, 1,500-meter or 3,000-meter race.

Fans are advised to not blink, for a 500-meter race can end in 40-odd seconds.

Short track began as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Games. Four years later, it became an official Winter Olympics event. In long track speed skating ?an Olympic event since 1924 for men and 1960 for women ?two skaters race against the clock around a 330-meter oval. Short track pits four to six skaters who push and shove each other while battling the clock.

Short track races feature contestants' jockeying, jostling and feigning. Penalties are common. as is a frantic, flat-out rush for the finish line. Indeed, the difference between a gold and a silver medal can be a thousandth of a second.

"Short track athletes have to be fast and skillful, but they also have to go into a race with a game plan, a tactic to beat their opponents," said Jeon Jae-sik, a short track coach at Mokdong Ice Rink in eastern Seoul, where many of Korea's best young skaters train.

Korea first participated in the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1948, but it was not until 1992 in Albertville, France, that Korea took home its first medal in the Games. Kim Ki-hoon won the gold in the men's 1,000 meter short track race that year, and the men's team also earned gold in the 5,000 meter relay.

Over the last 10 years, short track has become synonymous with the Korean Winter Olympic team. This year, the nation is sending 44 athletes to compete in skiing, luge, biathlon and skating events, which include long and short track and figure skating. But the only solid hope for gold lies in the short track. Twelve skaters are currently training at Taereung Ice Skating Rink in northeastern Seoul.

According to Mr. Jeon, short track is a sport that comfortably fits a slight body, one reason for Korea's success.

"It's a thinking man's sport," said Mr. Jeon, "and one of the few sports in which height doesn't matter."





The Winter Olympics short track competition is scheduled for Feb. 13, 16, 20 and 23. The Games end Feb. 24.




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KIM DONG-SUNG


Age: 21

Height: 175 centimeters

Weight: 73 kilograms



The world of short track speed skating suddenly took notice in 1998 when a 17-year-old Korean whipped by in a blue blur to win the men's 1,000 meter race with a time of 1 minute, 32.375 seconds. Li Jiajun of China placed second at 1:32.428. The blur's name was Kim Dong-sung, and nobody expected him to take gold in Japan.

Kim's father had died of a heart attack a year earlier while watching his son race in the national championships. Even in the midst of grief, Kim went on to make the Korean team and become a hero. The coach of the national team, Jun Myung-kyu, cites Kim's "incredible" concentration as one of his chief weapons.

Now a college student, Kim has vaulted from being one of the youngest, most inexperienced skaters on the national team to being a superstar of the sport. "At Nagano, I was happy just to be on the starting line," he said. "I wasn't going for gold in Nagano, it just happened."

The last Olympics' surprise sensation is now the captain of the team. "The team looks up to me for leadership, and we have high expectations, so all of that adds up to a lot of stress," Kim said.

Kim began training at 9. He started in the sport because, "I just thought it was fun." In the off-season, when he takes a break from training, he takes to unfrozen water, where he wakeboards.

Jun says there is no doubt that Kim will medal. A bigger question is, will he win gold?


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KO GI-HYUN

Age: 15

Height: 168 centimeters

Weight: 58 kilograms



On New Year's eve, as most of Korea partied, Ko Gi-hyun trained with fellow skater Joo Min-jin. When one of them suddenly stumbled, they both took a bad tumble. "I don't remember exactly what happened," Ko says, now favoring her right arm. She was lucky to walk away with a fractured arm and no damage to her legs. Ko is still only a middle school student, but she was, and still is, if she heals, Korea's top woman contender for a gold medal in the Winter Olympics.

Jun, the national team's coach, said of Ko's injury, "I can't foresee what will happen, but we had the highest hopes for her."

But given Ko's reputation as a highly-conditioned athlete, her supporters are betting she will bounce back in time. "Most skaters are panting with exhaustion when they finish a race," Jun said. "But Ko looks the same at the end as she does at the start."

Ko is cautious about her chances to make the Korean team. "I'm hoping for a chance to make and help the team," she said shyly, "but it depends on getting better."

If she makes the final cut, her top rivals will be from China, Japan, Canada and Bulgaria. The fiercest competition will be from China, which has some of the best short track racers but has not won an event since 1992. China was expected to win three golds at Nagano, but left with four silvers. "They will be hungry" Jun said.

Ko began skating at age 5 at the Lotte World rink in Jamsil. She joined the sport's national program last year. Her motto? "Give it all I have."


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Olympic dreams start early - in age and in the hour

"I saw Kim Dong-sung once at a race," Yu Dong-gyeun boasts of Korea's short track superstar.

It's 8 p.m., and a lot of kids Dong-gyeun's age are home in their pajamas, but this elementary school fifth grader is still training at Mokdong Ice Rink in eastern Seoul. By the time he goes home, he'll fall asleep quickly, then wake at dawn to return to the rink by 6:30 for a two-hour morning workout.

Dong-gyeun, 11, seems like any normal kid. He likes the pop group g.o.d and Pizza Hut Supreme pies.

But once he dons sleek Oakley sunglasses and a padded, left-handed glove to brace himself on turns, he is a short track skater-in-training for future Olympic gold.

Dong-gyeun's coach, Jeon Jae-sik, explains that while Korean short track skaters are on par with the world's best, Korea has been investing in young skaters, and that the younger generation is ahead of its foreign counterparts.

In Seoul, short track skaters can train at Mokdong Ice Rink or at Lotte World. But ask any Mokdong athlete or their parents and they will scoff at Lotte World. A "social skating rink," they call it.

From 7 to 8 p.m. at Mokdong, seven girls, all figure skaters, and 70 short track skaters, boys and girls, share the ice. Their parents are lined up against the rail of the rink. From 8 to 9 p.m. the numbers decrease to two dozen of the better short track athletes, including Dong-gyeun. He trains with a group of older boys, who start circling the rink in a serpentine line.

After only two years of skating, Dong-gyeun has begun to place consistently in top competitions. With years of training and avoiding injuries to go before he can fulfill his Olympic dreams, he sums up his quest: "It's hard work." Because of his rigorous regimen, his school principal allows him to miss the first hour of class every day.

Dong-gyeun began skating by chance. His father, Yu Si-hwan, who arrived at the rink just before 9 p.m. to pick up his son, explained, "My wife got tired of us playing at home, so she said, 'Can't you get out and do something, like go ice skating?'" The younger Yu, then in third grade, had been taking taekwondo, but decided that skating was more fun.

The elder Yu, who is not an athlete, was surprised by his son's talent, so he and his wife decided to invest time and money to develop it. "Of course, I would love it if my son made it big," he said. "But short track is dangerous, and he could get hurt. All you can do is trust God."

Nearby, another father says, "You should see the smile on Yu's face whenever he watches his son."


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KOREA'S WINTER OLYMPIC MEDALISTS




1992 ALBERTVILLE, FRANCE

GOLD:

Kim Ki-hoon, short track, men's 1,000 meter

Team Korea, short track, men's 5,000 meter relay



SILVER:

Kim Yoon-man, long track, men's 1,000 meter



BRONZE:

Lee Joon-ho, short track, men's 1,000 meter



1994 LILLEHAMMER, NORWAY

GOLD:

Chae Ji-hoon, short track, men's 500 meter

Kim Ki-hoon, short track, men's 1,000 meter

Chun Lee-kyung, short track, women's 1,000 meter

Team Korea, short track, women's 3,000 meter relay



SILVER:

Chae Ji-hoon, short track, men's 1,000 meter



BRONZE:

Kim So-hee, short track, women's 1,000 meter





1998 NAGANO, JAPAN

GOLD:

Kim Dong-sun, short track, men's 1,000 meter

Chun Lee-kyung, short track, women's 1,000 meter

Team Korea, short track, women's 3,000 meter relay



SILVER:

Team Korea, short track, men's 5,000 relay



BRONZE:

Chun Lee-kyung, short track, women's 500

Won Hye-kyung, short track, women's 1,000

by Joe Yong-hee

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