What will Team Korea serve up in PyeongChang?
By Zev D. Blumenfeld
Can you feel that energy? The winter is finally here and Seoul has turned into a magical, winter wonderland. (I mean, look at all this glistening snow–it’s everywhere. If I close my eyes hard enough, I can almost see the heaping piles.) And everywhere you go Koreans are giddy with anticipation for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games this February. Well, “giddy” is a strong word, let’s say “aware.” Koreans are aware of the Winter Games…oh, and there isn’t any snow on the ground.
It might be due to the remnants of the political fallout and lingering ties that former president Park Guen-hye had to the PyeongChang games. Or, it could be from the controversy surrounding beloved figure skater, idol and–in the eyes of many–goddess, Kim Yuna being cheated out of a gold medal at Sochi in 2014 and her subsequent retirement. Or, maybe the lack of enthusiasm is because PyeongChang organizers signed off on destroying a 500-year-old, sacred forest on Mount Gariwang–(just kidding, that’s not the reason. You think people really care about the environment? Hah, no.) But whatever it is, any buzz that is going around is definitely not about the Olympic sports themselves.
As of early November, only 20.7 percent of the 750,000 tickets available to the South Korean public had been sold. Ticket sales are on track to set a record low (though, the limited edition olympic coats were off the shelves like TVs on Black Friday). Regardless of the electric atmosphere (or, lack thereof), Team Korea has some athletes poised to take home the gold whether thousands are in attendance or no one at all.
The most important meal of the day: Curling
Annie’s Yogurt, Sunny, Pancake, and Steak may sound like a breakfast menu from your local Butterfinger Pancakes joint (Mr. Butterfinger, if you’re reading this, just know I can drop your name in here more. All I’m asking for are a couple flapjacks and some syrup. C’mon, buddy. You know I’m good for it.) But before you run out the door to place your order, know that these are the nicknames of Team Eunjung Kim—the Korean Women’s Curling team. The girls hail from Uiseong—a county of about 70,000 people that is located approximately two hours north of Daegu by train.
In 2015, the team began their battle to PyeongChang by winning locally at the Uiseong International Curling Tour. After their triumph at home, they took their skills to the international stage, taking gold at the Shorty Jenkins Classic in Ontario, Canada and the 2015 Canad Inns Women’s Classic in Manitoba, Canada.
But while 2015 was a busy year for the Breakfast Club, they disappeared from the spotlight for most of 2016. They reemerged in the 2017 Pacific-Asian Curling Championship in Australia. Team Kim crushed Japan in the final round, 11-6, and brought home the gold medal. While they’ve been largely successful, Team Kim currently ranks eighth in the world behind the United States.
This February, the men’s curling team will be represented by another group from Uiseong led by skip, Chang-Min Kim. They are coming off a nail-biting win against a dominant Team China at the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships and hope to slide to another victory in PyeongChang.
Korea came back from trailing five points in the sixth end (period) to being down by just one at the beginning of the tenth and final end. Under pressure, Chang-Min Kim, forced China’s stone out past Korea’s second stone in the ring. This added two points to Korea’s score and secured a 9-8 win over their Chinese adversaries. It was a come-from-behind victory over a better ranked opponent. (China’s men’s team is currently ranked seventh). At the time of publication, the team was ranked 16th in the World Curling Federation Rankings.
Both the women’s and men’s teams will need to fend off the higher ranked Japanese Team, something that hasn’t happened since the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Team Korea’s bread and butter: Short Track Speed Skating
Unsurprising to anybody who has followed Korea in recent Olympic years–and by recent, I mean any time since 1967–is their prowess in short track speed skating. Korea currently holds the most Olympic medals of any country when it comes to short track speed skating with 42. The next closest country is China with 30, followed by Canada and the United States.
When the 2014 Winter Olympics concluded in Sochi, Russia, Team Korea left with three gold medals. Two of these were won in the short track speed skating event. Skater, Park Seung-hi sped to victory in the 1000m race and helped the team skate to the gold in the 3000m relay. However in PyeongChang, Park has decided to forgo the short track events in favor of long track.
Will this be a problem? Most likely not. The ladies short track team is a powerhouse. 19-year-old protege, Choi Min-Jeong has filled the vacancy left by Park. As of publication, Choi ranks first in the world in the Ladies’ 500m, 1000m, and 1500m races. In just two years, she’s grabbed seven gold medals in World Championship races.To make things even sweeter, Korea is leading the way in the Ladies’ 3000m relay, which means the country has the ability to sweep the entire Ladies’ short track event.
And there’s more. Skater Shim Suk-hee currently holds second place in the 1500m standings and third place in the 1000m standings.
Meanwhile, the men’s team, lead by Hwang Dae-heon, have plenty of opportunity to secure medals in PyeongChang. In November, Hwang sped to second place at a World Cup event in Seoul, finishing behind Charles Hamelin of Canada. Currently, Hwang leads in the men’s 1500m ranking and Team Korea is ranked at number two behind Canada in the Men’s Relay.
There are four short track speed skating races for both the men and women in the Olympics, all of which will take place at the Gangneung Ice Arena.
A side of…Skeleton?
The “Goddess of Figure Skating,” Kim Yuna has retired after an impressive run–winning gold in 2010 in Vancouver Olympic games in the Women’s singles figure skating and silver in 2014 while competing at Sochi. She been given the nickname “Face of PyeongChang,” for her instrumental role in garnering support to bring the Olympics to Korea.
But after her performance in Sochi, Yuna retired and Korea has fallen out of the spotlight in figure skating. Instead, audience attention may shift to the Skeleton event where, as of early December, Yun Sung-bin maintains a lead in the rankings of the men’s International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. In 2014, Sung-bin finished sixteenth overall. However in late November of this year, Yun Sung-bin won his second World Cup of the season in Canada, making him the first Asian to win consecutive Skeleton World Cup gold medals. Yun won the silver medal at the IBSF World Cup in New York and his first gold medal in Park City, Utah.
One of Yun’s biggest rivals, Alexander Tretyakov of Russia received a lifetime ban from competing in the Olympics due to being found guilty of doping in Sochi. Consequently, this leaves only one other serious contender for the top spot in the Men’s Skeleton event at PyeongChang–reigning champion Martins Dukurs of Latvia.
While the atmosphere surrounding the Olympics still seems rather relaxed, the athletes participating on Team Korea might be able to provide the spark the country needs.