At the Gangneung Ice Arena, as the clock displayed 9:10 pm, there was a sense of inevitability. The partisan crowd was whipping into a frenzy as World #1 Choi Min-jeong was mentally preparing for the finals of the Women’s 500-meter short track finals. Choi was favored to take her first gold medal, South Korea’s second medal of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and her first of potentially four medals in the Olympiad.
As the crowd came to a hush, five skaters lined up in a tense quiet, readying for 42 seconds of frenzy: Choi in the innermost lane, followed by Arianna Fontana of Italy, Kim Boutin of Canada, Elise Christie of Great Britain and Yara van Kerkhof of the Netherlands.
At the crack of the starter’s pistol, Fontana jumps to the front while van Kerkhof slides into second. For the first two laps of the 4.5 lap race, Choi is nestled in third place. At two-and-a-half laps, Choi makes her move, swinging wide not once but twice to finally slip into second by the end of the third lap. She has 1.5 laps to make up the difference for gold.
As they approach the end of lap 4, Christie, the 2017 world champion, goes crashing into the walls. As they speed around the last curve, Fontana and Choi are neck and neck, the Dutch and Canadian women significantly behind. The crowed explode in cheers as they want to believe the Korean has crossed the line in front of the Italian. Moments later, the board flashes the preliminary result: Fontana first and Choi second. The crowd’s intensity drops, until they realize Choi has won silver, the second medal for South Korea in their Olympics.
There is always an underlying tension until you get the final results. Until judges review the video, you sometimes don’t know whether a skater will be disqualified for an infraction. The crowd of Chinese seated behind me know this because in the evening, Chinese skaters were DQed in two men’s 1000-meter qualifying heats and in one of the women’s 500-meter semifinals.
The wait ended, and then came the shock. Choi was penalized and disqualified in the 500-meters final. She was not the silver medalist. She did not win South Korea’s second medal of the Games.
To her credit, Choi faced the music in front of the press, wiping away tears as she put on a face of professionalism, as shown in these quotes from Yonhap.
I’m confident that I can get over it. I still have three competitions left. I won’t obsess over the results. If I skated far better, I wouldn’t have hit her. I won’t make a complaint of it.
From the angle the referee was watching the race, I think there was a good reason that I was penalized. I was going to accept whatever results I ended up getting, and so I have no regrets. This won’t affect my remaining competitions.
Nineteen-year-old Choi got to the finals after surviving quarterfinal and semifinal matches earlier in the evening. To get to the finals is not easy in short track, the definition of the phrase “thrills and spills.”
Skating at speeds and angles that defy the thin blades of short track skates to maintain traction on the ice, skaters often find themselves thrown off balance with the slightest of touches, centrifugal forces sending them flying like rag dolls into the cushioned walls.
Disqualifications are not uncommon. Skaters, in the moment, can’t help but to touch, tug or bump an opponent. In an attempt to get ahead of another skater, the quality of the split-second decision to slip in front of another competitor determines whether the aggressor has legally moved ahead, or has impeded the progress of the other.
And while South Koreans bemoaned the loss of Choi’s silver medal, others celebrated. For every disqualification, there is a re-assessment of the order, bringing hope to others. In the second semi-finals of the 500-meter event, China’s Qu Chunyu was penalized, allowing Boutin of Canada to advance into the finals. That’s why there were five skaters in the finals, not four as is common.
More significantly, thanks to Choi’s penalty, Boutin was suddenly boosted from distant fourth to third place, and a bronze medal.
Short track speed skating fortune truly rests on a razor’s edge.