GANGNEUNG, South Korea — It was the third heat of the opening night, with both a South Korean and a North Korean in the field, when the short-track speedskating competition established itself as the place to be for the Winter Olympics.
Like a thunderbolt from a cloud, a previously quiet audience of 12,000 at Gangneung Ice Arena burst to be noticed when the South Korean skater Hwang Dae-heon was introduced for the men’s 1,500-meter race. Fans held the anticipation level at midfrenzy as the North Korean Choe Un-song and four others joined him at the starting line.
The crowd was hushed for the starting gun with a “shhh” from the public-address system, then built itself up again as the six skaters spun in counterclockwise ovals. It oohed at every bump between skaters and roared at every pass. It got louder as the “laps to go” counter clicked down with every spin around the rink.
Hwang won, and the crowd showered him with a piercingly loud ovation. It did not matter that it was just a preliminary heat that merely advanced him to the next round.
There may be no Olympic pairing of site and sport like South Korea and short-track speedskating. Entering the Pyeongchang Olympics, South Korea had won 53 medals in its Winter Olympic history, and 42 of them were in short-track speedskating.
That is why, long before they arrived, teams from places like the United States were excited for the Olympics to be in South Korea, in front of a loud and knowledgeable audience. It was a bit like playing baseball in Boston or soccer in Rio de Janeiro. The people get it.
One big difference was the presence of the North Korean cheering section, consisting of more than 100 young women in matching red warm-up suits and ceaseless smiles. They performed a choreographed song from their seats in the upper bowl, moving in perfect formation, swaying their bodies and swirling their hands. Sometimes they waved small flags, first the North Korean one (long banned in South Korea, but increasingly routine at these Olympics) and then the one being used as a unified flag between the two nations. South Koreans clapped with them or aimed their smartphones at the spectacle. Eventually, predictably, they started a wave.
But not before the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, was ushered to his seat at mid-ice, next to Vice President Mike Pence of the United States. Or before two Korean singers performed “Uptown Funk” and were later joined by a horn section, a house band like a Korean version of the Roots. There was a kiss cam.
By the end of the night, after the political dignitaries were gone, after the superstar Choi Min-jeong set an Olympic record in the 500-meter qualifying, and after the South Korean women’s relay team set another Olympic record despite a midrace tumble, a quiet 21-year-old named Lim Hyo-jun was on the top step of a podium, winner of South Korea’s first gold medal of these Olympics, soaking in the adulation of the crowd and a nation.
The one who acted the least excited about the night, besides the grim-faced security detail surrounding the politicians, was Lim. With the type of understated modesty that feels hard-wired in South Korean skaters, he thanked everyone around him and barely broke a smile.
“Those 12,000 people are also the ones I would like to thank,” he said.
(Lest anyone think there are no quotable athletes on the South Korean team, consider what Kim Ye-jin said on Thursday after practicing alongside two North Korean male skaters. “We had general conversations,” she said, according to South Korean media. “Jong called me ugly, so I told him back, ‘Did you look in the mirror?’”)
It was the first of five nights of short-track speedskating sprinkled through the Olympics like booster shots. The events are held in the same arena that hosts figure skating. While figure skating has a special place in South Korea’s Olympic legacy — Kim Yuna, an Olympic gold and silver medalist, lit the caldron at the opening ceremony — it is short-track speedskating that gets South Korea excited.
It does not have a deep history. The sport was introduced to the country in 1982 by a university team from Japan, in Seoul for an exhibition. South Korea created a national team in 1985 in anticipation of the next year’s Asian Winter Games.
It quickly evolved into perhaps the country’s favorite sport, at least in winter, especially after the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, when Kim Ki-hoon won the 1,000-meter event, the first gold medal for the country. (Still a hero, he was deemed “mayor” of the athletes’ village for these Games.) South Korea won five gold medals and one silver medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, and a full-blown powerhouse was established.
The quick success drew countless young skaters. Former Olympians became coaches. The government invested money in national programs and rinks. The sport boomed.
In short-track, the rivalries built quickly, especially with China. The United States and Canada became powers, too. Those four still dominate, though others are catching up, including the Netherlands, long a long-track power finally setting sights on its quirky cousin.
But it remains a tighter fit in South Korea. The country has no major professional team sports leagues that might otherwise command the attention of fans or siphon young athletes into their pipelines. Short-track speedskating occupies both those voids. And it matches South Korea’s zeal for national pride, given that competitions not only pit racer versus racer, but country versus country.
Saturday night did not get off to a thrilling start. At least a quarter of the seats were empty for the first heat of the men’s 1,500, the longest individual event with a uniquely unexciting start. At the sound of the starting gun, the six racers meander off the starting line, in no great rush. They pace themselves and position themselves, soon twirling faster and faster, like a merry-go-round winding up.
Once the Koreans took the ice, the crowd was fully wound, too. It dipped just a bit when Maame Biney, an 18-year-old American, captured second place in one heat of the 500-meter qualifications ahead of the South Korean Kim A-lang. That result sent Biney, but not Kim, to Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
The home crowd was ratcheted back up by a stirring, record-setting comeback in the women’s 3,000-meter relay semifinal. A South Korean skater caught the skate of a competitor early in the race and tumbled to the ice. A teammate tagged her hand and jumped in, well behind the other three teams. The South Korean team slowly closed the gap, a fraction each lap, until it leapfrogged past teams from Russia, Hungary and Canada, each with a roar of approval. The performance, fall and all, set an Olympic record of 4 minutes 6.387 seconds.
It was safe to wonder if the moment also set a decibel record for short-track at an Olympic venue. If so, it might have been broken soon after, when Hwang and Lim positioned themselves 1-2 during the gold medal final of the men’s 1,500.
But Hwang crashed out, colliding with a competitor, and the chorus of fans dropped an octave for a bar or two, only to rise again in its push of Lim. He finished just in front of Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands and Semen Elistratov of Russia, who both expressed joy for their place on the medal podium and their place at the Gangneung arena.
“It’s amazing to skate for 12,000 people in a small rink like this,” Knegt said.
There was no medal ceremony — that would come at a special medals plaza the next day — but there was a “venue ceremony.” The men took their places on a podium and were presented, with medals-like grandeur, a plush version of Soohorang, the white-tiger Olympic mascot.
The three stood on their podium, holding the tigers. The public-address announcer thanked everyone and said good night. Almost as quickly as it had come to life a couple of hours before, the crowd shuffled out, and the arena went quiet again.
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