By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea invested heavily across the winter sports spectrum to boost its medal chances at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics but if the ongoing Winter Asiad is anything to go by, the cut-throat world of short track remains its best hope for gold next year.
Since short track speed skating debuted as a medal sport at the 1992 Winter Olympics, Korean athletes have won 21 of the 48 golds up for grabs, their bravery, blazing acceleration and ice-cool composure giving them a razor-sharp edge over their rivals.
The Korean short track skaters have impressed at the Winter Asiad in Sapporo, winning five of eight golds on offer, with two-time women’s overall world champion Choi Min-jeong and Sochi 3,000 meters relay gold medalist Shim Suk-hee in top form.
A Korean Sports and Olympic Committee official said that while the hosts hoped for medals across the board in 2018, short track remained their bread and butter.
“Our gold medal targets will be focused on skating sports, with short track as our strongest event and then speed skating,” he said on Friday.
“We have an overall target of eight gold, four silver and eight bronze medals for Pyeongchang, but this may change.”
South Korean speed skaters were also among the medals in Sapporo, picking up six of the 14 golds. Lee Seung-hoon skated off with four titles with his victories in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, mass start and team pursuit.
Perhaps a more realistic showing of Korea’s global standing in the sport, however, came at the World Single Distance Championships in Gangneung earlier this month, a test event for the 2018 Games.
Korea won just one gold with Kim Bo-reum in the women’s mass start, while the dominant Dutch claimed eight titles.
REPLACING THE IRREPLACEABLE
While short track and speed skating account for all but one of South Korea’s 26 Winter Games gold medals, it is the other Olympic title which truly revved up the country’s passion for winter sports.
Figure skater Kim Yuna’s captivating performance in Vancouver brought the country to a standstill seven years ago and gave rise to a new generation of skaters, skiers and sliders.
Her retirement after the 2014 Sochi Games saw Korea bid farewell to one of its few global sporting personalities but there is hope that one of her proteges, or ‘Yuna Kids’ as they have been dubbed, will be able to step into her skates one day.
Replacing the irreplaceable Yuna is perhaps a forlorn hope, but Choi Da-bin’s performance in winning the women’s short program in Sapporo on Thursday proved South Korean figure skating appears to have a future.
There are no sliding sports at the Asian Winter Games but South Korea has caught the eye at international bobsleigh and skeleton competitions over the last year.
Hyundai Motor, South Korea’s biggest auto maker, gave the country’s sliders a boost by delivering a new state-of-the-art bobsleigh to the team in 2016, with officials touting design improvements that make it more aerodynamic and easier to handle.
South Korea won gold medals in snowboarding and cross-country skiing in Sapporo, but it would be difficult to imagine them topping the podium in a year’s time when the might of Europe and North America arrive in Pyeongchang.
Likewise, the ultimate underdog men’s ice hockey team will need to produce nothing short of another ‘miracle on ice’ if they are to have any success against heavy-hitters like Canada, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
The Pyeongchang Olympics will be held from Feb. 9-25 next year.
(Additional reporting by Yun Hwan Chae; Editing by John O’Brien)