[Viewpoint] Rinks of dreams

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[Viewpoint] Rinks of dreams

In the 1960s, figure skating did go on in Korea. It would be all too plausible to believe it didn’t, of course. Korea was so poor at the time that it wouldn’t be surprising if figure skating had no place. When the majority of Koreans were struggling to survive and lived in destitution, figure skating - a sport from the world of dreams and fairy tales - wouldn’t seem to fit. Until the mid-1970s, the Dongdaemun Skating Rink was the only indoor ice rink in the country. Except for the winter, when people could skate outdoors, figure skaters and ice hockey players trained together at Dongdaemun. I have no memories about skiing. Maybe it was enjoyed in Gangwon Province.

Until the 1960s, Gongji Lake was the cathedral of speed skating. Later, an outdoor international-standard ice rink was built in Taereung, and a roof was built over it to transform it into an indoor rink.

Pyeongchang was named as the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the news reminded me of Sapporo, Japan. Well before the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Japan hosted the first Winter Olympic Games in Asia in Sapporo. In 1990, the Winter Asian Games were held in Sapporo, and North Korean speed skater and silver medalist Han Pil-hwa reunited with her brother from the South. Japan hosted the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics and eight years later held the winter Games in Sapporo. Its successful hosting of both summer and winter Games not only had political significance but also symbolized the astonishing pace of economic success Japan had attained since World War II.

And this week, Korea won an Olympic Winter Games. It has been 30 years since the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Korea became the sixth country to host four major international sports competitions: the Summer and Winter Olympics, the FIFA World Cup and the World Championships in Athletics by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Only Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia have hosted all four events.

Nostalgic memories of the past come alive. I wonder how speed skating races were held on Gongji Lake. I imagine it wasn’t possible to create oval tracks and the skaters dashed along in straight lines. Why was the ice on the Dongdaemun Rink so watery all the time? They must have been conserving energy and couldn’t afford to freeze the rink rock hard.

The history of the outdoor skating rinks on the outskirts of Seoul is a mini-portrait of the development-driven era from the 1960s to 70s. There were empty lots in the back streets of neighborhoods like Miari and Cheongnyangni, which became bustling commercial districts. In winter, plastic was laid down on the empty lot and water was poured and frozen to make an outdoor ice rink. Make-shift audio systems played songs by popular musicians of the times.

However, if you go there next winter, you won’t be able to find them. Seoul expanded constantly, and the empty lots were filled with buildings and apartments. So you would have to travel to Uijeongbu to skate. Until the indoor ice rinks were built in residential districts filled with apartments, Koreans lost their places to skate. Ice skating became distant from the lives of Koreans.

Then Korean short-track skaters gained preeminence in international competitions, and their victories gave Koreans great pleasure and pride. Kim Yu-na emerged to become the star of the century, and her beautiful and artistic programs made every viewer happy. And at the end, the quintessence of international winter sports is coming to Pyeongchang.

Years ago, Jamaican athletes participated in the bobsled competition in the Winter Olympics and gave the world a pleasant surprise. Nevertheless, winter sports are mostly enjoyed in the northern hemisphere.

Say a country in Southeast Asia accomplishes the same kind of economic development that Korea has attained: it won’t ever be able to host the Winter Olympics due to geography and climate.

The hosting of the Winter Olympics is a truly special honor.

The Summer Olympics provide us a chance to enjoy exotic and unfamiliar sports such as horseback riding, and the Winter Olympics also presents unfamiliar and interesting snow sports such as bobsleigh, ski jump, cross-country skiing and the biathlon. Korean winter sports are currently focused on ice sports, but it is very exciting to imagine the variety of sports offerings seven years from now.

I already want to see the faces of the young athletes who will bring glories to Korea.

*The writer is a culture and sports editor for the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Jung Jae-suk
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