A birthday present like no other

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A birthday present like no other

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Mo Tae-bum of Korea races in the men’s 500-meter speed skating event at the Richmond Olympic Oval yesterday. [YONHAP]

The unheralded birthday boy shocked everyone.

In his Olympic debut, Mo Tae-bum earned Korea its first speed skating gold medal.

Yesterday, the newly crowned king of the 500-meter was seen celebrating with clenched fists and the Korean flag draped around his shoulders.

“I don’t believe it,” said the awestruck Mo in a post-race interview. “I wasn’t expecting this at all, but I gained a lot of confidence after a strong finish in the first heat.”

While Korea has won its share of gold in short-track speed skating events since the sport was included as an official Olympic sport at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, it has not done as well in the longer track speed skating events.

In fact, Kim Yoon-man, a silver medalist in the 1,000-meter event at the 1992 Winter Olympics, and Lee Kang-seok, a bronze medalist in the 500-meter at the 2006 Turin Winter Games, were the lone Korean speed skating medalists until Lee Seung-hoon delivered a silver medal in the 5,000-meter event over the weekend. Lee Seung-hoon’s was the first-ever medal for an Asian skater in a long-distance speed skating event.

The longer speed skating tracks are better suited for the taller and stronger European and North American skaters, while smaller and quicker Korean and Chinese skaters have fared well in the short-track speed skating events.

“Size advantage is one thing but there’s nothing we can do about that. Speed skating is an unpredictable sport. You just never know what might happen on the day of competition,” said Baek Chul-gi, the director of Korea Skating Union.

Mo kept his cool throughout the race despite a 90-minute delay that undid his teammates, and improved his time in the second heat by 0.02 seconds despite being paired with the home-crowd favorite and world-record holder Jeremy Wotherspoon.

“I kept loose, got some rest and tried not to concern myself too much about the turn of events. It did not create much of a problem for me,” Mo said after the race.

“I thought if I could stay ahead [of Wotherspoon] in the first 100-meter mark, I thought I could win the race. I gained confidence as the race wore on.”

Mo’s win in the 500-meter event seemed to come as a shock to everyone, including his competitors.

“I did not expect it at all. I expected the two Lees [Kang-seok and Kyu-hyeok] but not Mo,” silver medalist Keiichiro Nagashima of Japan told Agence France-Presse.

“I think this is the best moment in my coaching career since I took the position in 2004,” said Korea’s head coach, Kim Kwan-kyu. “After the end of the first heat, I smoked a few cigarettes and wished that other players would make mistakes.

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“Most players tend to finish with slower times in the second heat but, facing pressure, Mo did well.”

To understand how impressive Mo’s feat was - and just how difficult it can be to win the event often called the speed skating equivalent of the 100-meter track sprint - one need look no further than the decorated Canadian veteran Wotherspoon, 33 , who is competing in what will likely be his last Olympics. Wotherspoon finished fifth overall yesterday and his best finish was a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

“I have never raced a perfect race to what my ability was on that given day,” Wotherspoon told Reuters yesterday. “The finish was disappointing. I was just sitting there, analyzing what went wrong. I was wondering where my skating went.”

For Korean skaters, past attempts at a medal in the 500-meter have been heartbreaking near-misses. Bae Ki-tae entered the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics as the favorite winning the 1987 Netherlands World Championships but ended up fifth overall. Lee Kyu-hyeok was the favorite coming into Vancouver, but he was also favored at the 2006 Turin Winter Games and has yet to earn a medal. Lee finished 15th overall yesterday, and his best finish in the 500-meter event was fourth in Turin four years ago.


By Jason Kim [jason@joongang.co.kr]
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