In Sochi, women brought home medals

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In Sochi, women brought home medals

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From left: Park Seung-hi, Lee Sang-hwa and Kim Yu-na.

Korea wrapped up its two-week journey at the Sochi Winter Olympics by claiming a surprising silver medal in the men’s speed skating team pursuit on Saturday. During the Games, which were held from Feb. 7 to yesterday, the country claimed eight medals - three gold, three silver and two bronze - thanks mostly to its female athletes, who won seven of them.

Before the competition, Korea was projected to win at least four golds and be in the top 10 of the medal count for the third straight Olympics, but that didn’t happen. As the country’s male athletes struggled, particularly in speed skating and short track, Korea finished in 13th place among the 88 participating nations.

It looks like Korea needs to make some serious investments in fostering young athletes in a wide range of sports if it wants to be competitive for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which it will host in Pyeongchang. Figure skating queen Kim Yu-na, 23, has already declared her retirement and speed skater Lee Sang-hwa, the world record-holder in the women’s 500 meters, will be 28 in 2018. Also, the country has won no medals in skiing disciplines such as alpine and ski jumping or bobsleigh events.

On Saturday, the men’s speed skating team won Korea’s first medal in the team pursuit at Adler Arena. The team, which has struggled in Sochi, consists of Kim Chul-min, Joo Hyung-joon and Lee Seung-hoon, who won the gold medal in the 10,000 meters and the silver in the 5,000 meters in the 2010 Vancouver Games, but failed to win any medals in the same events this year. Korea finished second in the final behind the Netherlands, which has dominated the speed skating events. Korea’s final lap time, 3:40.85, was 3.14 seconds behind the Netherlands’ 3:37.71.

“Sochi was a tough event,” Lee, 25, said in a post-race interview. “But since it was the very last event we had, we tried to put our best effort to make a good outcome. I want to thank my teammates, and I’m very proud of this medal because three of us made this together. But we do seriously need to foster more young skaters for this event since Kim and Joo are the only available players, excluding me.”

Earlier on Saturday, the women’s short track speed skating team, which has won most of Korea’s medals, again delivered good news for local fans. In the 1,000-meter final held at the Iceberg Skating Palace, Park Seung-hi claimed the gold with a time of 1:30.76 and Shim Suk-hee, who helped bring the nation a dramatic gold in the 3,000-meter relay last week, won the bronze with a time of 1:31.02. Saturday’s gold was the third for Korea and the second for Park. Park also won the bronze in the 500 meters, the country’s first medal in that event since the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

“I’m extremely happy for what I have done in Sochi,” Park said. “I always have been dreaming of being a part of the Olympics in my career, and I think my efforts that I have put in skating finally paid off. I really want to thank my teammates, including Suk-hee, who raced with me, and I want to ask the nation to cheer for her.”

For the men’s short track team, the Olympics were a nightmare. Park Se-yeong, the younger brother of Seung-hi, and veteran Lee Han-bin, 25, failed to advance to the semifinals in the men’s 500 meters on the same day - and the team finished the Winter Games empty-handed for the first time in 12 years.

“We feel very sorry for the nation for such disappointing outcomes,” Lee said after the race. “But I want to ask people to give their support, just like they have been for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.”

To make matters worse, they also had to watch their former teammate, Ahn Hyun-soo, now Viktor Ahn of Russia, win additional golds on Saturday. Ahn, 28, led the Russians to victory in the 5,000-meter relay with a time of 6:42.10, a new Olympic record. He also won the 500 meters, which was held about an hour earlier, with a time of 41.31 seconds. Including the 1,000 meters, Ahn has won three gold medals, plus a bronze in the 1,500 meters. If Ahn was still skating for Korea, the country would have finished the medal count in seventh place.

“I know that people are talking about my nationality, but I want to make clear that I only came to Russia to skate in an environment where I can only concentrate on skating,” Ahn said on Saturday. “I didn’t change my nationality because of the Korea Skating Union.”

In speed skating, Lee Sang-hwa, 24, defended her title in the 500 meters by setting a new Olympic record of 74.70 seconds on Feb. 11. Her victory was the first gold in Sochi for team Korea, which had been struggling in the event. She soon became the most popular female athlete among Koreans. Lee hasn’t decided whether she will compete in Pyeongchang, but analysts say there will be a lot of pressure for her to do so.

Furthermore, Koreans now have to let go of their figure skating darling, Kim Yu-na, who won the silver in the women’s singles on Friday. The Vancouver champion skated flawlessly in the short and free programs, but the gold medal was claimed by Adelina Sotnikova of Russia with a score of 224.59 points.

Worldwide media outlets, including NBC and ESPN, and several analysts, including Katarina Witt of Germany, who is one of the two female skaters to win back-to-back Olympic titles, questioned the judging system after Kim lost.

The judges said Kim attempted only six triple jumps while Sotnikova did seven, but that didn’t explain why Carolina Kostner of Italy, who also made seven triple jumps, was given 7.34 points fewer than Sotnikova. Despite the controversy, Kim was resolute in accepting not only the result, but also the end of her 17-year career.

But the question is who will replace Kim in Pyeongchang. Two 17-year-olds, Kim Hae-jin and Park So-youn, competed in Sochi, but their skill level was far behind their competitors. For instance, Park’s total score was only 142.97 points, which was lower than Yu-na’s 144.19 points just from the free skate.

“Korea may be worse than the Sochi Games in Pyeongchang because they will certainly lose some star players like Yu-na,” said sports analyst Choi Dong-ho. “Korea has traditionally relied on a few top athletes. The government needs to improve the overall farm system for athletes.”

BY kwon sang-soo [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]




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