Skaters seek respect at Asian GamesJINJU, South Gyeongsang - On a scorching September day here, 434 kilometers (270 miles) south of Seoul, eight Korean national inline skaters kicked off their boots after three hours of grueling training.
Their blue national team uniforms, emblazoned with “Korea,” are soaked in sweat, and their faces are flushed with excitement and anticipation ahead of the upcoming 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, in November.
“It’s really hard. I’m tired,” said Woo Hyo-sook, 24, the oldest member on the female squad.
Dubbed a “distance specialist,” Woo earned three gold medals at the 2008 world championship, and two more golds at the 2009 competition.
“But I can’t stop here,” Woo said. “I’m facing a tournament more important than the annual world championship.”
Korea is a heavy favorite as roller sports make their Asiad debut. The country earned 15 gold medals at the world championship last year, topping Colombia, the former world champion, which had nine.
In Guangzhou, however, Korean skaters will go for something more intangible than gold medals - respect.
“When we attend an international match, we exchange national team uniforms with foreign athletes, like in football,” said Eum Han-jun, the male national champion in short distance.
The gesture is a sign of respect. To Eum, the shirts are not keepsakes.
Instead, he likes to wear them while practicing with his local club to show off his international clout.
“A few years ago, foreign skaters refused to trade jerseys with us,” Eum said. “But now, they ask us for them. Getting some uniforms at the Asian Games would be awesome.”
Despite considerable international success - Eum said he feels Korea is one of the world’s powerhouses - inline speed skating has not endeared itself to local sports fans.
But things might change in November.
“We have been out of the limelight even though we got a bunch of medals in world championships and other international competitions,” said Eum, a gold-medal favorite in the men’s short-distance events. “But now we are going out there to dig for gold.”
Six gold medals are up for grabs in speed events - the men’s and women’s 300-meter time trial race, 500-meter sprint race and 10,000-meter point-plus-elimination (PE) race.
Skaters are timed individually on the 200-meter-long round track in time trial races, and times are compared at the end.
In sprint racing, skaters start simultaneously and whoever’s wheels cross the finish line first wins.
In PE racing, skaters who pass the line last every lap are eliminated and the top two skaters are awarded points. The three skaters who compile the most points receive medals.
“We are aiming to get at least four gold medals in six speed events at Guangzhou. My athletes deserve the award,” said speed skating team coach Kang Daei-sig. “They have undergone special training, like cycling and mountaineering, to build strength.”
He said the key to winning is to be smart and fast, and to have a solid skating technique to survive harsh and fierce fights on the track.
Captain Son Geun-seong is undaunted by the physical challenge and said his teammates should dominate the podium.
“Our skaters are strong in stamina and skill,” Son said. “They’re all speedy and able fighters on the track. Every athlete has their own strategy to avoid collapse and maintain leads during the race. That’s our advantage.”
Kang said all his athletes are strong candidates for gold medals in Guangzhou and Woo is the favorite in long distance. Last year, Woo became the first female inline skater to win the 10,000-meter PE race at three consecutive world championships.
Korean skaters are under a lot of pressure because inline speed skating will not be included at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, Korea. If the team wants to popularize the sport in Asia, this might be there one chance.
“Our athletes have enjoyed competing in inline skating,” Kang said. “I want to help them take pride in the sport and become heroes.”