Speed skaters on track with golden start
Three-time world short track speed skating champion Ahn Hyun-soo brought home the nation’s first gold medal of this Winter Olympics, finishing first in the men’s 1,500-meter race Sunday (early Monday morning, Korean time) with a time of 2:25.34. His teammate Lee Ho-suk ― a country could only send out two skaters in the distance ― won the silver in 2:25.60. China’s Li Jiajun, who is competing in his third Winter Games and plans to retire after the Torino games, took the bronze.
For all his international success, this was 20-year-old Ahn’s first Olympic medal of any kind.
During the 1,500-meter final at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, American skater Apolo Anton Ohno won the gold after Korea’s Kim Dong-sung, who crossed the finish line first, was disqualified for blocking Ohno’s path. The overturn caused a furor in Korea, where people bombarded Ohno with hate mail, and some even called for a boycott of U.S. products.
Ahn’s gold medal-winning performance not only confirms his standing as the dominant skater in 1,500 meters, but also settles the four-year-old score with Ohno.
Ohno did not even reaching the final, eliminating any excitement over a possible showdown with Ahn. The U.S.-born skater stumbled as he was entering the final lap of his semifinal heat and only reached the secondary final, where racers competed for places from seventh to 12th.
Ohno almost missed that race, barely making it to the starting line when other skaters were already lined up. Ohno finished eighth.
“I expected to race head to head with Ohno, and it was disappointing not to,” Ahn told Yonhap News. “But there are other great skaters, and I just focused on winning the gold medal.”
China’s duo of Li and Li Ye were the early leaders of the race, with Ahn and Lee trailing in the six-man final. But Lee made his first charge with six laps to go, moving ahead of the Chinese to take the lead, and Ahn followed up into second place after another lap.
With two laps remaining, it came down to Lee and Ahn fighting for the gold, and it was Ahn who took the lead that he never relinquished.
In the day’s earlier events, the Korean ladies easily qualified for the 3,000-meter relay final, which will be held Feb. 22. The quartet of Byun Chun-sa, Choi Eun-kyung, Jin Sun-yu and Kang Yun-mi beat out the Italian team by nearly a full second, and will compete with Italy, Canada, and China in the final race.
Jin and Kang will also be skating in the women’s 500-meter quarterfinals tomorrow, with the final scheduled later the same day.
Only the top two finishers in each of the four heats advance to the semifinals, where, from two heats, the top two skaters will reach the final.
Kang will be up against the world’s top 500-meter skater in China’s Wang Meng, as well as U.S. veteran Allison Baver. Jin, considered the Korean team’s ace, appears to be in for an easier challenge, her only serious competition being Canada’s Kalyna Roberge.
Tomorrow promises to be another important day for the Korean short track delegation. The preliminary rounds for the men’s 1,000 meters are scheduled, and the male skaters will also line up for 5,000-meter relay semifinal heats.
The 19-year-old Lee, the 1,500-meter silver medallist, is ranked No. 1 in the 1,000 meters by the International Skating Union, and will gun for his own gold medal. Ahn and Ohno round out the top three in the world’s 1,000 meters ranking, and barring major incidents. such as the fall that took Ohno out of the race Sunday, the three should meet up in the finals.
Korean men have been nearly unbeaten at the 5,000-meter relay, having won the last four World Cups and two of the last three World Championships.
The final heat for the men’s 1,000 meters will be held on Saturday, when the women’s 1,500-meter final is also scheduled. The final heat for men’s 5,000-meter relay is on Feb. 25.
by Yoo Jee-ho