The wheel truth

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The wheel truth

One day a young boy went rollerskating with his mother, a gleeful smile painting his face as he dashed along the pavement on skates with four fat, round wheels each.

Correction. He was smiling.

Then an older child raced by on a new kind of skate that had all of its wheels in one, sleek row. The boy started to cry as he looked down at his feet. "My skates are speedless," he sobbed. "I can't play with them!"

So goes the story of inline skating in Korea, a tale that started when new equipment from the West indulged a need for speed in the East. And once the price of imported skates went down, the number of skaters shot up. Over the last five years, the popularity of inline skating has continued to soar.

"I like the rush; there's something about being on wheels," explained Cody Winter, a 35-year-old Korean American who competes as an amateur speedskater. "There's just no other feeling like it."

But there must be more to the popularity of inline skating than speed. Its accessibility is part of the reason it has caught on. About $150 will buy a decent pair of skates, a helmet and some pads, although renting is also an option. After that, you just have to find a piece of pavement and start rolling. It's easier than running and takes less skill than other sports like soccer or baseball. Improvement comes quickly. Then there are the physical benefits of exercise. And, of course, you get to go fast.

"Regardless of age or gender, if people want to participate, they can," explained Kim Yong Woo, the president of the Korea Roller Sports Federation. "Everyone can do it if they want to."

And people of all shapes, sizes, and ages are doing it; including many that probably wouldn't otherwise be exercising. Nearly 1,000 people flock to Olympic Park every weekend to skate by Peace Gate, some speeding around curves in shiny spandex while others fumble on the side. An inline skating marathon held in Seoul in April attracted 5,300 people, and 10,000 are expected to participate in the race next year. Hundreds of elementary schools throughout Seoul have built their own rollerskating rinks, spawning just as many community skating groups. The Korea Roller Sports Federation has taken a more active roll to promote inline skating, now hosting seven national contests and a slew of exhibitions.

Inline skating isn't just for Seoul's most adventurous or rebellious. It's for women, men, children and, increasingly, for families. "Women can enjoy rollerskating with their own children, instead of sending them off to play without any supervision," Mr. Kim explained.

Elite speedskaters have stormed the trails along the Han River as well, much to the dismay of bikers. Figure skaters, aggressive skaters and hockey players are also more visible today than two or three years ago.

A second theory behind the skating hype deals with the pressures of Korean life. Amid numerous social conventions and responsibilities, a pair of skates offers freedom and relaxation. This explanation seems to hold especially true for women, who make up about 30 percent of some skating clubs, a high percentage for any co-ed sport here.

"Skating just kind of lets the feeling out," explained Mr. Winter, who routinely skates up to 80 kilometers in a day. "People become a lot more at ease."

What makes the in-line skating boom so impressive, though, is that it has flourished as a grassroots sport. While the Roller Sports Federation actively promotes inline skating, individuals and communities have been most responsible for encouraging the sport. Mr. Kim compared the phenomenon to the Red Devil cheering craze that swept through Korea during the World Cup: The authorities made suggestions and provided means for mass participation, but average people spurred the movement. "There was no policy for the Red Devils, and it wasn't government enforced," Mr. Kim said. "That's why we were able to mobilize so many people."

Inline skating has developed the same way. The Roller Sports Federation, which began in 1972, has tried to organize events and provide logistical help for skaters, but most skaters take off on their own.

If the reason for the inline skating boom is not certain, its staying power seems to be. "It's not even close to where it will be in three years," Mr. Winter said. "It's got so much room to grow."

Skating facilities have gone up in Olympic Stadium and and a new track will soon grace the city of Seogwipo on Jeju island. The caliber of quality skaters is on the rise, with Korea sending representatives to skate in the 2002 World Speed Competition to be held in Belgium this August. There are also rumors of pro leagues and Olympic events in the near future. The number of participants is estimated now in the tens of thousands just in Seoul.

And then there is the eternal desire for things that go fast. As Mr. Winter vowed, "I'll skate until I die, that's for sure."

by Daniela Santa Maria

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