S Korea looks to continue dominance in short track speed skating at Winter Olympics

19:03, February 04, 2010      

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Ever since short track speed skating has become an official Olympic sport in 1992, South Korea has firmly planted itself as a perennial favorite to win the event, tallying 29 medals over the past five Winter Olympics, of which 17 were gold.

Following one of the most dominating performances at the Turin Olympics in 2006, where South Korea garnered a record-high six gold medals in the sport, the country is bustling yet again with high expectations that its short-track speed skating team will show ascendancy at next week's Vancouver Winter Olympics.

STAR-STUDDED LINE-UP

At the front of the South Korean team's 10-man squad stands Lee Ho-suk, the eldest member at 24, who is asked to lead the team that is missing former gold medalists Ahn Hyun-soo and Jin Sun-yu due to injuries.

In a recent press conference with local media, Lee, who was runner-up to Ahn at Turin in the 1,000m and 1,500m single races, and won a gold medal at the 5,000m relays, said "my personal goal is to win the gold in the 1,500m and 1,000m as well as the 500m events, with hopes of winning the relay too."

Sung Si-bak, who is making his Olympic debut this year, rose to prominence at last year's national championship when he beat out Ahn and Jin to cement his spot on the national team.

"Our goal is to sweep all four gold medals in the men's events," proclaimed the 22-year old Sung, who didn't qualify for the team in 2006 but followed up his omission from the Olympic squad by collecting five gold medals at the 2007 Winter Universiade, putting himself in the limelight.

However, the women's team, led by Cho Ha-ri, who is also playing in her first Olympics, has received mixed reviews so far as the team failed to clinch any gold medals at the last two World Cup series, which consequently prompted the previous coaching staff to step down.

Despite China's rapid emergence in the women's short track speed skating --anchored by the world's top ranked player Wang Meng -- Cho hopes her experience of defeating Wang once in the 1000m race of the second World Cup series last September will galvanize her team to better-perform, thereby sustaining the women team's legacy in the Olympics.

"The women team's utmost priority is to win the fifth consecutive gold in the 3000m relays," she said, adding "I'm sure my first Olympics will be a good one as well."

GROWING GLOBAL COMPETITION

Meanwhile, growing competition from other countries, namely China, Canada, and the United States, has brought stiff challenges to the South Korean squad.

The top six or seven Olympic athletes in both men's and women's short track speed skating come from those four countries.

In particular, Wang Meng of China, who has won the gold at Turin in the women's 500m and was the lone non-Korean to win a gold in that year's event, is shooting for improved results this year.

"Our target is to beat the South Korean team," the double world record-holder of the women's 500m and 1,000m races told Xinhua last month.

Leading up to the Vancouver Olympics, Wang showed superior performance at both the World Cup women's overall standings and the 3,000m relay.

"I am very confident," Wang said, "I am much stronger than four years ago, physically and mentally."

On the men's side, Apolo Anton Ohno of the United States, the surprise winner at the 500m event in Turin four years ago when he upset South Korea's Ahn, and Charles Hamelin of Canada, who won the men's 500m world title in 2007 and 2009 and finished first in this season's 500m World Cup, present the fiercest competition.

Ohno, particularly, who has collected five Olympic medals and nine world titles in his career, is eager to once again challenge South Korea's supremacy in the sport.

"I'd like to medal in every single distance. That'd be a dream come true," the 27-year old American reportedly said.

FIGHTING THE 'OBVIOUS' EXPECTATIONS

Some South Korean players have voiced concerns of skyrocketing expectations locally that could possibly work as an impediment to the team as it puts the onus on players to replicate, or surpass, previous performances.

South Korean fans have come to regard a gold medal performance as an "obvious" result in every Olympics, players said, and it has become burdensome for the skaters to deal with.

"Due to our sustained success at the Olympics, it has almost become a given to bring back a gold medal to some local fans," Lee told local media Joynews. "That could put immense pressure on the team and at times it could detract the players' performance."

Especially, following South Korea's record-breaking six gold medal assault at Turin and subsequent exponential growth in local fan expectations, local media satirically criticized the phenomenon as saying, "some believe winning the Olympic gold medal is easier than making the South Korean national team."

In order to overcome such pressure and expectations, Lee said he's been training 10 hours a day and the team has collectively worked extra harder leading up to the Olympics.

The stage for determining the world's best short track speed skater begins Feb. 13 in Vancouver, with a total of eight distances to compete for both men and women combined.

Local media predicted that a more realistic goal for the South Korean short-track speed skating team would be three gold medals at this year's Olympics.

Nonetheless, South Korean short track speed skaters believe they will maintain a firm grip to its stranglehold on global dominance, as Sung said, "I'm confident we'll have the best-ever showing in South Korean Winter Olympics history."

Source: Xinhua
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