Fontant edges out Choi

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.

Medalists 500 meter short track speed skating_Fontana
Medalists Women’s 500 meter short track speed skating: silver medal van Kerkhof, gold medal Fontana, and bronze medal Boutin.

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.

Kim Boutin Takes Bronze womens short track 500 meters
Kim Boutin takes bronze after Choi’s penalty announced.

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.

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Chloe Kim
Chloe Kim

Someone in Seoul recently wrote to me that many South Koreans are not so excited in the Winter Games to be held in their home country because there are no Korean superstars like Yuna Kim at these Games. I’m sure that will change if it hasn’t already.

Having said that, one of the biggest young talents coming to PyeongChang is a first-generation Korean. She will, however, be competing for the US. Her name is Chloe Kim. She is one of the best snowboarders in the world, becoming the youngest gold medalist at the Winter X Games at the age of 14. A year later she became the first person under 16 to win three gold medals, as well as the first woman to complete back-to-back 1080 spins in a competition, the only person other than the legendary snowboarder and teammate, Shaun White, to do so.Kim began snowboarding at 4

Born in California to Korean-born parents, Kim began snowboarding at 4. According to this SI article, she moved to Switzerland, where her parents met, for a couple of years of elementary school, where she added French and learned how to ply the halfpipe.

A Korean who won’t be returning is Viktor Ahn. With 3 gold medals and a bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City and 2006 Torino Olympiads, Ahn (formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo) is one of the most decorated Olympians in South Korean history.

Unfortunately, following the 2006 Torino Games, the relationship between Ahn and his coach of the very successful Korean short track men’s team became tenable at best. Eventually, Ahn was put in a different group coached by the women’s track team, and the relationship became, apparently, unrepairable.

In 2008, Ahn fractured his knee while training, taking him out of action, and making it impossible for him to defend his world championship titles in 2008 and 2009. So when trials began for the 2010 Sochi Olympics, Ahn was not able to qualify due to the lack of points from not participating in the prior World Cups, so Ahn, somewhat surprisingly, was left off the South Korean squad heading to the 2010 Vancouver Games.

President Vladimir Putin Honours Russian Olympic Athletes
Putin and Ahn

In a tremendous shock to Korea, Ahn became a Russian citizen, and joined the Russian national team in time for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where he had a successful comeback – three more gold medals and a bronze.

It goes without saying, with the Russia team under the dark cloud of state-sponsored cheating in addition to his “defection” to Russia, Koreans may have been looking forward to welcoming or heckling their for me star back to Korea. Unfortunately, that dramatic storyline never emerged.

While the IOC has approved over 160 Russians to compete at the Pyeong Chang Olympics, that list did not include Ahn, the taint of Russian medal winners who trained during the height of the state-sponsored doping machine prior and during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Ahn is despondent, as he explained to RT:

This is really a very difficult situation. The IOC hasn’t specified any reasons for my exclusion from the Olympics. I don’t understand why they have made such a decision. I really can’t say anything right now. I’m still waiting, but if the situation is not resolved we will take action. During my entire career journey in short track, I’ve never given a reason to doubt my honesty and my integrity, especially when it comes to my victories which I achieved with nothing but my strength and dedication.

Apolo Ohno Salt Lake City Games

I lived in Belltown, Seattle and would often walk by Yuki’s Diffusion on 4th Avenue, where Yuki Ohno ran his hair salon. I always quietly hoped that he would be cutting his son’s hair when I passed by, but I don’t think I ever saw the salon open.

It’s possible, when I was in Seattle in 2009-2011, Yuki may have been preparing his son for one last push, one last hurrah. For Yuki’s son is Apolo Ohno, three-time Olympian and American speed demon of the short track. In 2009, he was gearing up for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where he would garner two more bronze medals to complement his six medals from the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games, including two golds.

But years before Apolo Ohno exploded onto the scene at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, he was just a rebellious teenager. His mother had left the family when he was one, so the always-on, rambunctious boy was raised by a single father who knew, according to this Seattle Times article, only the way he was raised, with strict discipline and a clear message about hard work and respect.” Young Apolo knew how things were at his friends’ homes, where “their parents are their servants, kids’ fingers snap, there’s the food,” Yuki said.

One thing Yuki noticed was that Apolo was athletic, and encouraged his son to swim, then roller skate, before eventually picking up roller blading. According to this ABC News article, Yuki would drive Apolo hundreds of miles around the United States so Apolo could race in rollerblading competitions, this while working full days at the hair salon. After watching the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics together, they were amazed to discover that Olympians were racing around on blades, on the ice. After getting Apolo skates, they soon realized that the kid was very fast on ice skates too, fast enough that he was asked to train with other promising speedskaters at the U. S. Junior Olympic Development Team in Lake Placid, N. Y.

Suddenly, Apolo was on the fast track to the Olympics. And yet, while Apolo was physically ready for the challenge, his head wasn’t there yet. As explained in the ABC News article, after Yuki took his son to the airport and left him to wait for his flight for New York, the son slipped away, crashing at the homes of friends in Seattle for two weeks. The father eventually found his fugitive son, and got him on the plane to Lake Placid. At the 1997 trials for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Apolo was likely a 15-year-old ball of confusion. Out of 16 competitors, Apolo finished 16th. That’s when Yuki insisted that Apolo take the time to think about what he wanted, by himself, by banishing his son to an isolated cottage by the Pacific Ocean where it was cold and rainy.

“My dad and I, we were still battling back and forth,” Apolo said. “He said, ‘Okay, you need to go to the ocean and contemplate, what are you gonna do?’ “

For days, Apolo did little but run and think. It was a tough time for Yuki, too.

“I had to tell him,” ‘You have to do this alone, all by yourself in the cottage in a very rainy, cold isolated area,’ ” Yuki said. “It’s very hard for me to tell him, but, ‘You have to take this path to come to the decision on your own.’ “

On the ninth day, Apolo called his dad and said simply, “I’m ready.”

From that point on, focused on becoming great at speed skating, Apolo Ohno began a long and very successful Olympic career. And his father Yuki was there practically every step of the way, travelling with his son during competitions, the training sessions and of course the Olympics. After all the fighting, the long trips in the cars, the highs and the crashes, Apolo today realizes that his father has always been there for him.

“I have certain times that I have to myself, I’m on the plane or I’m in a hotel room and I think like, ‘Wow’ You’re very grateful — you know, that I was blessed to have such great dad. And he is so supportive.”

Apolo and Yuki Ohno
Apolo and Yuki Ohno

 

short track_NYT
Screen Capture from New York Times video.

They skate at speeds up to 40 miles per hour with 42-cm razor-sharp blades on their feet. And when you’re coming around a curve at high speed, and you lose your edge and go flying, your feet often go up in the air.

“Everything is neck to neck, and everybody is side by side. You have to be ready and prepared for anything and anybody coming by you.”

Short track speed skating, an event in which skaters fly around a short 110-meter track is an exhilarating event – speed junkies definitely invited. What is called NASCAR on ice, short track speed skating is for speed junkies. To get a sense of the thrill, here is a great short video from the New York Times.

But part of the thrill is the risk, the danger of injury. Case in point is J. R. Celski, a 19-year-old up-and-comer who was priming fro the Vancouver Olympics. He was competing in a race he did not have to, turned a corner, lost control, his right blade slashing through muscle in his left leg, just below the knee, blood streaming onto the ice. Here is Celski describing the accident: