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Korea pins Olympic hopes on speed skaters

Host nation determined to make PyeongChang its best Winter Games
Feb 01,2018
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From left: Lee Sang-hwa, Lee Seung-hoon, Choi Min-jeong, Shim Suk-hee and Yun Sung-bin. [YONHAP, NEWS1, AP/YONHAP]
Korea’s goal, as laid out by the local Olympic Committee, is to win 20 medals at the PyeongChang Winter Games - eight gold, four silver and eight bronze. If that happens, Korea would rank fourth on the medal table, its best performance at any Winter Olympics.

Whether the country achieves the record depends largely on the performance of its short-track speed skaters. Out of 53 medals that Korea has won in the Winter Games, 42 have come from short-track, according to NBC Sports, the official broadcaster of the Olympics.

In men and women’s short-track relay, Korea is expected at win least two gold medals and up to six.

Expectations are especially high for Choi Min-jeong and Shim Suk-hee.

Choi ranked first this season in the International Skating Union’s world ranking for women’s 500 meters, a race that is not typically Korea’s strength. The 19-year-old short-tracker also ranks first in women’s 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters, raising expectations that Korea might sweep all three events in women’s short-track relay.

Shim, 21, is another medal contender, but recent allegations of her coach assaulting her are leaving some fans wondering if she will be mentally prepared for the Olympics.

Korea also has high hopes for the men’s short-track team, with rising stars Hwang Dae-heon, 22, and Lim Hyo-jun, 19, participating in their first Olympics.

Hwang came in first at the 1,500-meter race at the ISU Audi World Cup in Budapest in November, while Lim topped the 1,000-meter race.

“The men’s team has yet to show its true capabilities,” Coach Kim Sun-tae said. “We are anticipating better results than Sochi [Olympics], when we came home with no medals.”

In long-track, Korea expects to win one to three gold medals. The one to watch will be two-time gold medalist Lee Sang-hwa, who’s widely anticipated to clinch gold in the women’s 500-meter relay.

But the 28-year-old will have to skate past her Japanese rival Nao Kodaira, who has been sweeping the World Cup this season, ranking first in the ladies 500-meter relay events according to the ISU. Lee is ranked fourth.

In mass start, a gold medal is expected from Lee Seung-hoon and Kim Bo-reum. Lee, 29, won gold in men’s mass start at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating Final in Stavanger, Norway, last February, while Kim, 24, took second place in women’s mass start at the same event.

To devote all his time to mass start, Lee gave up competing in the men’s 1,500-meter relay. He proved his talent for long-distance racing when he won gold in the men’s 10,000 meters at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, setting him up as the best candidate for mass start in PyeongChang, as mass starters must run 16 laps around the rink.

Kim, however, had to pass a few hurdles before seeing success as a long-distance skater. After failing to secure a spot on the women’s short-track team, Kim turned to long-track. The change turned in her favor as she won gold at the World Single Distance Championships in Gangneung, Gangwon, last February.

Aside from skating, Korea also hopes to bag its first gold in skeleton through Yun Sung-bin, who is currently first on the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation’s men’s skeleton ranking. The 24-year-old slider won gold in five World Cup meets out of seven this season - his two other finishes were runner-up - beating out the eight-time World Cup champion Martins Dukurs of Latvia.

Because Yun also got a head start in practicing at the sliding track at the PyeongChang Olympic venue, his likelihood of ousting Dukurs this month and winning gold seems very plausible.

In its most recent virtual medal table from Jan. 10, Gracenote, an American data firm, projected Korea would not be in the top 10 at all, with seven gold and three silver medals. Still, it would be the most gold medals that Korea has won at a Winter Olympics.

On the short-track speed skating front, Russia’s neutral athletes do not seem to pose a threat to Korean athletes with the recent announcement that six-time gold medalist Viktor An would not be participating in the Games.

An is a Korean-born skater who defected to Russia in 2011 and is presumed to be barred from PyeongChang for doping.

Gracenote predicts Germany will finish first with a combined medal count of 40, Norway second with 37 and Canada third with 33.

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG, LAURA SONG [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]