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Unlikely friendships mark a true sense of fair play

Korean and Japanese speed-skating stars are charting the course
Feb 21,2018
이미지뷰
Left: Speed skaters Lee Sang-hwa of Korea, left, and Nao Kodaira of Japan embrace each other after the women’s 500-meter race on Sunday at the Gangneung Oval in Gangwon. Lee won the silver medal clocking 37.33 seconds in total while Kodaira finished first with a combined time of 36.94 seconds. Right: Korean short tracker Choi Min-jeong, left, and Canadian short tracker Kim Boutin put their hands together to form a heart at the awards ceremony for the women’s 1,500 meters Sunday at the Medal Plaza in Pyeongchang County, Gangwon. [NEWS1]
GANGNEUNG, Gangwon - As Korean speed skater Lee Sang-hwa completed the women’s 500-meter race Sunday night to win silver, she burst into tears and skated towards her longtime rival and friend, Nao Kodaira of Japan.

When the Japanese cheering team roared for Kodaira’s gold, the skater put her hand on her lips to shush the crowd and be considerate towards the other athletes who came behind her.

“You did a good job,” Kodaira told Lee in Korean. “I respect you.”

But this is a stark contrast to the way the two were constantly pitted against each other in the media.

They started competing against each other in 2004, with Lee always in the lead. But after Kodaira received training in the Netherlands in 2014, she reigned in the women’s 500 meters, as shown by her recent records at this season’s International Skating Union’s World Cup matches.

During this time, Lee was recovering from a chronic knee injury and wasn’t in top form.

“I wish people would stop comparing me with that athlete [Kodaira],” Lee said before the start of the PyeongChang Olympics.

Kodaira was also exasperated by the constant comparisons, and when asked by reporters what she thought of Lee, she gave the curt reply, “Great athlete.”

But despite their rivalry on the rink, the two have maintained a “borderless friendship” outside the arena.

“We’ve shared a lot of good memories together,” Lee said after Sunday’s race.

Kodaira recalled one of those good memories during an interview after the 500-meter race.

“Sang-hwa was always friendly,” she said. “After I won the Seoul World Cup three years ago, I had to hurry back to the Netherlands. Sang-hwa called a taxi to take me straight to the airport and also paid for the fare. I thought she would have been down about the results of the race, but I was so glad that she was still thinking of me.”

Lee said she “never felt bad” after a race against Kodaira.

“I definitely paid for that taxi fare,” Lee chuckled. “She is a good friend as well as a rival.”

Though PyeongChang was expected to be Lee’s last Olympics, Lee said it was still too soon to tell.

“Sometime in the last season, I asked Nao [Kodaira] whether she would race at the Beijing Games. She answered, ‘Not without you,’” Lee said, laughing. “At that time, I thought it was just a joke. But now, the question is too hard to answer.”

Short-track speed skating fans also saw the beginning of another friendship, this one between Korea’s Choi Min-jeong and Canada’s Kim Boutin at the official awards ceremony for the women’s 1,500 meters at the Medal Plaza in Pyeongchang County, Gangwon.

The two were all smiles as they shared the podium on Sunday.

As a gesture of friendship, gold medalist Choi and bronze medalist Boutin put their hands together in the shape of a heart.

It was a surprising move after their controversial match at the women’s 500-meter race last week.

Though Choi reached the finish line second with Boutin in fourth, Choi was disqualified after judges held her responsible for interfering with Boutin during the race. Boutin was bumped to third, while Choi left the arena empty-handed.

Angered by the turn of events, Korean fans online launched vitriolic attacks at Boutin after the match.

“Congratulations on a dirty medal,” one tweeted, while another wrote, “You have been teaching Kim Boutin how to cheat, Canada!!”

“I don’t think all Koreans are like that,” Boutin told reporters after the 1,500-meter race on Saturday, where she won bronze. “I really like this country. It hurts me, of course. But I am not angry about this. I think it is important to continue to enjoy what we do.”

Choi and Boutin made amends when the two ran into each other at the Gangneung Olympic Village dining hall the day before the 1,500-meter race, and settled any awkwardness between them, according to Canada’s CTV News.

“Boutin approached me first,” said Choi after the awards ceremony. “It’s not just me and Boutin, but all athletes give it their all during the Games. It is up to the judges to decide.”

But online slandering targeting a foreign skater is not new to Koreans. Boutin’s case was reminiscent of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when British short tracker Elise Christie was accused of causing Korea’s Park Seung-hi to crash during the women’s 500-meter race as Park was taking the lead.

Korean netizens lashed out at Christie on social media.

Like Choi, Park was not bitter about the incident, and even defended the British short tracker.

“Christie is a close friend,” said Park. “I wish our people would stop criticizing her.”

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