Big hopes for short track skaters
In three Winter Olympics ― 1992, 1994 and 1998 ― Korea finished in the top 10 in medal standings almost solely on the strength of its short track speed skaters. In the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, only the judging controversy involving Kim Dong-sung and the U.S. team’s Apolo Anton Ohno, with the latter being awarded the gold medal in the 1,500-meter (1,640-yard) race, prevented Korea from ranking in the top 10 again. Overall, Korean national short track skaters have won 11 Winter Olympic golds and 21 Asian Winter Games gold medals.
For a country hoping to host the Winter Olympics someday, this is almost an unhealthy reliance on one event. Sure, the Korean delegation for the Torino Winter Olympics includes about 30 athletes in eight other events, but in order for the team to achieve its goal ― what the team’s head honcho Byeon Tak said is a top-10 finish ― the short track speed skaters will have to come through once again.
Since 1992, the men’s teams have always been defined by a world-class ace, from Kim Ki-hoon (three golds in 1992 and 1994) to Chae Ji-hoon (gold in 1994) to Kim Dong-sung (gold in 1998 and the close call in 2002). This time around, it’s the baby-faced 20-year-old Ahn Hyun-soo who will lead the charge.
This is Ahn’s second Winter Olympics ― he finished fourth in the 1,000-meter race in Salt Lake City ― and in the four years since, he has won a slew of medals in World Championships, Short Track World Cups and the 2003 Asian Winter Games in Aomori, Japan. Based on his performance in the 2005-2006 season, Ahn is ranked No. 1 in the world.
On paper, the Korean squad, also featuring the world’s second-ranked player, Lee Ho-suk, Salt Lake City veteran Oh Se-jong, and explosive short distance specialist Song Suk-woo, appears as strong a team as Korea has ever assembled. The team’s primary challenge will come from the U.S. squad, led by Ohno.
Over the last year or so, Ahn and Ohno have basically traded gold medals in various 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter international events. In last March’s World Championships in China, Ahn was the gold medallist in 1,500 meters, but Ohno beat Ahn by less than two-tenths of a second to take the gold for the 1,000-meter race.
Then in the World Cup in China seven months later, it was Ahn who won the gold in the 1,000-meter race and Ohno taking the 1,500-meter event. In the final World Cup before the Winter Olympics, held in November in the Netherlands, Ahn won two gold medals to Ohno’s zero.
Not to be overlooked is the Chinese team. Li Jiajun, the 30-year-old veteran of two Winter Olympics, will probably skate in his last Winter Games. For all his credentials ― Li has always been a fixture at the top of the leader board in international events ― he has yet to win an Olympic gold medal, having picked up two silvers and a bronze. He and Li Ye, who has had a strong season on the World Cup scene, will head the perenially strong Chinese squad.
Korean men’s 5,000-meter relay team was unbeaten in the four World Cups, with China finishing second in each of those four events. Expect more of the same in Torino.
The women’s side is more of a two-team race between Korea and China. Choi Eun-kyung, who took the gold in the 3,000-meter relay in the 2002 Winter Games, is the only returnee from that year’s delegation. She has maintained a solid form on the season while recovering from a back injury, and Byun Chun-sa has been a surprising performer in long distance over the past year. Both she and Choi, though, have been overshadowed by the dominance of the 17-year-old Jin Sun-yu.
Ranked best in the world after the four-event World Cup series, Jin has won eight gold medals in those four tournaments. In the third World Cup in Italy in November, she came out on top in 1,000-meter, 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter races.
The Chinese team, with the formidable duo of Wang Meng and two-time Olympic gold medallist Yang Yang has to be considered the favorite. Wang, 20, has won seven gold medals in the World Cups this season, and is ranked top in 500-meter and 1,000-meter categories.
Korea’s blade ladies will also have to fend off challenges from Bulgaria’s Evgenia Radanova and the United States’ Allison Baver, as well as Canadian athletes.
by Yoo Jee-ho