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New contenders emerge at Olympics

Host country wins unlikely medals in several winter sports
Feb 27,2018
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1. Chloe Kim of the United States competes in the snowboarding halfpipe event. 2. Yun Sung-bin races in men’s skeleton. 3. Kim Eun-jung, center, slides a stone in the women’s curling event with her teammates Kim Seon-yeong, left, and Kim Yeong-mi ready to sweep. 4. Lee Sang-hwa, left, and Nao Kodaira of Japan embrace each other after a speed skating race. 5. Alina Zagitova, an Olympic Athlete from Russia. [YONHAP]
In an Olympics dominated early by headlines of political spectacle - apparent overtures of peace from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and a hockey team comprising players from both sides of the border - it was feats of sport that became the coda to a politically charged Games.

Korea’s unlikely silver in curling, Chloe Kim’s long-awaited Olympic debut and unexpected feats in sliding - the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics offered no shortage of memorable moments.

Norway topped the leaderboard with 14 gold, 14 silver and 11 bronze medals, a total of 39. Germany came in a close second with 31 medals followed by Canada and the United States. Korea finished in seventh place with 17 medals - five gold, eight silver and four bronze - the most medals the country has ever won.

Despite more than half of Russia’s athletes unable to compete due to a doping scandal, the Olympic Athletes from Russia still finished with 17 medals. The country - which finished top of the medal table at the 2014 Sochi Games - did especially well on ice, winning gold and silver in the ladies’ singles figure skating as well as gold in men’s ice hockey. Here are our highlights from the 2018 Winter Olympics.



Explosive debuts

For some athletes, PyeongChang was their last Olympic Games. For others, it was their first chance to make a mark on the world stage.

Korea continued to do well in women’s short-track speed skating, with world No. 1 Choi Min-jeong making an explosive debut at the Olympics. Choi, 19, took home two gold medals - one in the 1,000-meter race and the other in women’s relay - but she was disqualified from the 500-meter race and crashed out of the 1,500-meter event. Although she didn’t take home as many medals as hoped for, the young star established herself as a dominant force in Olympic short track.

Lim Hyo-jun, 21, continued Korea’s dominance in men’s short track, winning gold in the 1,500-meter event. Korea fielded a young team this year, with more than half of the athletes participating in their first Olympics.

Aside from its usual success in short track, Korea had a historic win in an unfamiliar event: skeleton. Yun Sung-bin set three track records in four of the heats to finish 1.63 seconds ahead of Nikita Tregubov, an Olympic Athlete from Russia, the biggest margin of victory recorded at the Olympics since skeleton was reintroduced in 2002. Yun, 23, was able to shoot to the top of a sport that has long been dominated by the Dukurs brothers of Latvia, both in their 30s.

The United States continued to dominate in snowboarding, with a new generation emerging on the slopes. Before 17-year-old Chloe Kim began her women’s halfpipe gold-medal run, Redmond Gerard won the country’s first gold in men’s slopestyle. By winning gold, Gerard became the youngest gold medalist in snowboarding at the Olympics, at age 17. Kim continued the momentum for the team as the youngest female snowboarder and received the highest score in the event at the Winter Games.

Kim finished nearly nine points above her closest competition and was the only female competitor to score over 90 on the halfpipe. Her first-run score of 93.75 was already good enough to beat the competition. She fell on her second run while attempting the elusive back-to-back 1080 but remained in first place since only the best score counts toward the final medal standing in snowboard halfpipe. On her final run, she scored 98.25, an Olympic record.

Figure skating tends to have the youngest gold medalists at the Olympics. This year’s competition was no exception, though the Games saw an even younger generation of skaters take to the podium. The women’s individual medal was won by 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, who only started competing internationally in 2016. With her victory, she became the second-youngest figure skater to ever win gold in the event.



New contenders

The PyeongChang Games were notable for the number of countries that took home medals in sports where they have not traditionally excelled.

Over the last two days of the Winter Games, Korea won two historic silver medals in unexpected events: the men’s parallel giant slalom and four-man bobsled.

Alpine snowboarder Lee Sang-ho took silver in the men’s parallel giant slalom, finishing 0.43 seconds behind top-ranked Nevin Galmarini of Switzerland, on Saturday. Lee was the first Asian man to medal in Olympic alpine snowboarding and the first Korean to win a medal at a snow event.

A day later, Korea’s four-man bobsled team led by pilot Won Yun-jong tied with the German team led by Nico Walther for a joint silver.

Racing second-last in the fourth heat, Team Korea recorded a time of 3 minutes and 16.38 seconds. Another German team, led by pilot Francesco Friedrich, won gold, finishing 0.53 seconds ahead of Korea and Walther’s team.

Unlike Yun Sung-bin, who won gold in men’s skeleton, fans weren’t expecting the win as the Korean team is ranked 50th in the world and has only had one top-10 finish this season. Going further back, the team’s career-best finish was fifth place during a World Cup race in 2016.

Though the bobsled team may not have won Asia’s first medal in a sliding event, as Yun took that title a week earlier, they were still the first Asian team to medal in bobsled at the Olympics.

Korea wasn’t the only country to do well in unfamiliar sports. Japan finally found its feet in women’s long-track speed skating, which is traditionally dominated by the Netherlands. Team Japan took home six medals in the sport, a new record for the country.

Men’s short track, which has long been dominated by Korea and China, also saw a new contender take to the ice, which Hungary dominating the men’s 5,000-meter relay race. The team set a new Olympic record of 6 minutes and 31.971 seconds.

The absence of National Hockey League players, which led Canada and the United States to lose the majority of its players in their roster, allowed for Germany to compete for an ice hockey medal, ultimately winning silver - the European country’s best-ever result in ice hockey.



The underdogs

The Olympics is about more than just medals, and some athletes made headlines around the world for their unexpected upsets.

The Korean women’s curling team’s silver finish was arguably the biggest sensation at this year’s Olympics, at least in Korea. For a country that only once qualified for the Olympics in any curling event - men’s, women’s or mixed doubles - to make it out of the round robin stage was unexpected. The team’s achievement changed the face of the sport in a nation that until two weeks ago was almost completely unaware of its existence.

The unlikely Cinderella story caught the public’s imagination outside of Korea as well, and Team Kim quickly gained a global following. Skip Kim Eun-jung’s stoic game face was instant meme material, and the squad’s unity and teamwork quickly won the hearts of social media users around the world. Kim Eun-jung’s emphatic shouts of “Yeong-mi” - the name of the team’s lead - became a globally recognizable catchphrase, and the skip’s hairstyle has also started to take off, with children across Korea opting for her signature front plait with ponytail.

Unlike Team Kim, whose popularity came from its unexpected success, Elizabeth Swaney raised eyebrows for finishing last in the women’s halfpipe after racing down the slope without a single trick.

Swaney had long been interested in competing at the Olympics. She originally planned to represent Venezuela, the country where her mother was born, in skeleton, but since her grandparents were Hungarian, she was able to earn Hungarian citizenship and decided to swap the sled for skis. Though only the top 24 skiers in the International Ski Federation ranking get to qualify for the Olympics, Swaney, No. 34 in a sport that has 40 ranked athletes, was given a spot due to the country quota system.

Since the rules require athletes to consistently finish in the top 30 at World Cup events and Swaney repeatedly competed in competitions with less than 30 competitors to begin with, her spot in the sparsely populated sport was guaranteed.



Heartwarming tales

The Olympics aren’t always about competition. Heartwarming stories of friendly rivalries and supportive families resonated with spectators.

Speed skaters Lee Sang-hwa and Nao Kodaira, long rivals in the women’s 500-meter event, faced off once again at the PyeongChang Games. Although Lee had the upper hand for many years, it was Kodaira who took gold.

Despite their rivalry on the track, the two are close friends. Fans were surprised to see Kodaira skate over to Lee and embrace her, saying, “Good job. I’m proud of you.” Lee teared up on the ice.

The men’s 15-kilometer cross country ski race also enjoyed an unusual boost in popularity after two of the 116 finishers became unlikely fan favorites.

Mexico’s German Madrazo, who skied for the first time last year, and Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua - best known as the country’s topless flagbearer during the PyeongChang and Rio opening ceremonies - impressed viewers by not giving up and finishing the race. Taufatofua, who finished 114th, even waited for Madrazo, who finished last, to cross the line. Madrazo received a hero’s welcome when he crossed the line, embracing the other late finishers and proving that taking part is what really counts.

In women’s ice hockey, the Brandt sisters also had a heartwarming tale to tell. While the younger Brandt, Hannah, competed for the United States, her older sister Marissa competed for the inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team under her Korean name, Park Yoon-jung.

Marissa was adopted by the Brandt family when she was 4 months old. While she left the competition early after Corea crashed out in the group stages, Hannah went on to win gold with Team USA - with her older sister cheering on the sidelines.

BY KANG YOO-RIM, JIM BULLEY [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]