[VIEWPOINT]Vitalize Korea’s winter sportsIt is pleasing to hear, even many times, the victorious news from the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. We feel proud to see our participants conquering the world, waving our national flag. Watching the scenes, we could shake off the troubles of life in this confusing and stifling world. It is a monumental achievement, unprecedented in the history of the Winter Olympics, to earn six out of the eight gold medals contended for in short track speed skating, missing first place only in the men’s and women’s 500-meter short track.
Korea’s short track speed skaters have long been the object of international study. When short track speed skating first appeared as an Olympic discipline in the 1992 Alberville Olympics in France, 14 years ago, the world’s media paid attention to Korea, which won two gold medals. They may have wondered how such wonderful skaters could come from an environment where there were only about 400 skaters and no dedicated ice rinks.
Surprised exclamations continued at the 2006 Winter Olympics also. Remarkably, a foreign news agency assessed that Korea, identified as a model country, proved the fact that medals could be earned by people’s efforts rather than by having natural conditions for winter sports. This is to say that regardless of the number and color of its medals, Korea is a “model” for the process of becoming fiercely competitive in the Olympic Games.
It is often said that victory in short track speed skating depends on intellectual and strategic capability but this is a mistaken premise. Watching our skaters outrun other countries’ with a last spurt at this Olympic Games, we came to confirm that victory is only possible with speed based on endurance. A representative case was that of Ahn Hyun-soo, who won three gold medals after four years of painstaking efforts to overcome his bitter feelings from his defeat at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in the United States.
As the Japanese media pointed out, Korean athletes received an unimaginable amount of training. Now, almost all observers understand what a harsh training short track speed skaters have. Reportedly, they received twice the amount of training to adapt to Turin’s rinks compared to that of skaters from other countries, through special negotiations with the Winter Olympics organizing committee. As the saying goes, light is usually followed by shadow. Korea’s short track speed skating suffered severe difficulties immediately before the Olympics. The problems of short track speed skating ― including suspicion over the manipulation of race results, players’ resistance to entering the training camp, feuds and conflicts between the athletes, preferential training centered on a specific team and the unfair selection of athletes ― were revealed in the media. A headline by a broadcaster two months ago was “Korean short track is rotten to the bursting point.” The media continuously raised suspicions over the fabrication of results and preferential training. In a sense, these challenges may have worked as a medicine.
Korean ice sports are, in a word, a mystery. Compared to North America and many European countries, Korea’s climate and the infrastructure for winter sports are very poor. The country has only one international level indoor ice rink in Taereung. The trend is that most ice rinks discourage daytime training for national teams, considering it a loss of profitability.
Even if speed and short track skating are combined, there are less than 1,000 athletes and the stands are always empty as they are not popular sports. It is a wonder that despite this situation, Korea has Olympic medallists in speed skating also.
Now that the 2006 Winter Olympics is over, the world will further hold Korea in check. Some argue that short track should be removed from the Olympics and others want a rule that prohibits a country from taking all medals in a sport, as in archery. Our answer would be to take the opportunity of our recent achievements to vitalize winter sports overall, including skating, and draw national attention to them.
We are seeking to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It would be futile if we had no good result from the games even if we realized our dream of hosting the Winter Games. We should have medallists not only in short track speed skating but also in figure skating and skiing. Seeing an African athlete win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics proves this is no empty dream. I look forward to seeing the passion of Pyeongchang bloom.
* The writer is the president of Sports Forum 21 and visiting professor at Myongji University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Tae-young