A nation yawns as its skaters deliver the goods

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A nation yawns as its skaters deliver the goods

The Korean short-track speed skaters didn’t shock us this time. They went ahead and won six gold medals at the Winter Olympics. Ten of the 11 medals Korea won came from short-track speed skating. Yawn. Other than that, the country won one bronze medal in the men’s 500-meter speed skating event. The medal count was great but not earth shattering, as it had been predicted.
Athletes like Ahn Hyun-soo, a top medal-winner, stand to win a fortune from the games through the “point” system, in which an athlete’s base monthly salary is determined by points won in performance. Once the maximum monthly salary of 1 million won ($1,000) is surpassed, the money is given in a lump sum. For Ahn, that sum is estimated at over 2 billion won. No doubt it was also hard work that led to the success of the short-track team. The athletes are said to put in almost double the training hours of their competitors and tremendous effort has gone into the search for the next generation of skaters.
The country’s longest run of consecutive medals is in archery at the Summer Olympics; the women archers have taken home the gold six times. But the female short-track relay event has a pretty good chance to match that record, if not surpass it. It’s probably all good but the fun diminishes each year when you watch the games and know what to look for. All the attention in winter is on short-track speed skating, and nothing else seems to matter. Not that I want to take away from the great performances of those skaters, but seeing something unexpected is always a lot more fun.
I would love to see crowds cheering on skeleton, bobsleigh and ski-jumping athletes and the media giving them more air time. How can you get interested in something when the events are aired in the wee hours of the morning instead of being shown at times when you aren’t half ― or totally ― asleep? Being able to see other great athletes perform would also help raise the profile of lesser-known sports such as curling.
It’s no secret that athletes here who compete in these events lack training facilities and equipment, or the funding to conduct training abroad. The ski-jump hill here is unusable in the summer, there are no practice tracks for skeleton and there are no bobsleds in the country. Under these circumstances, it’s a feat just for these athletes to participate in the Olympics.
Granted, Korea isn’t like Canada or the United States, where there’s always a place with snow and there is a large pool of winter sports enthusiasts to choose from. Korea still uses the old Soviet-style training methods in which the state stands behind the individual or sport. Athletes competing in disciplines that require patience and long years of training are often overlooked. Winter athletes suffer even more due to the relative lack of interest compared to the summer games.
Except for countries like Russia or Germany that dominate events across the board, most countries choose to carve out niches in certain areas. The Norwegians concentrate on cross-country skiing, while the Dutch have made speed skating their forte. So while it’s not a crime for Korea to concentrate on one discipline, this dominance will not last forever. Knowing that this day will come, it’s better to have a more diverse portfolio. There is always a first time for everything ― winning or losing.


by Brian Lee

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