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S. Koreans gearing up for Olympic rehearsal in Japan

All Headlines 09:00 February 08, 2017

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 8 (Yonhap) -- With the first Winter Games to be held in South Korea a year away, the upcoming Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, will act as an important rehearsal for the country's Olympic medal hopefuls.

The eighth edition of the Asian winter sports competition will open on Feb. 19 for a seven-day run. This will be the third time Sapporo is hosting the Winter Asiad.

These Games used to be held every four years, but the Sapporo event will be the first Winter Asiad since 2011. It was originally scheduled for 2015, but the Olympic Council of Asia decided to move it to one year before the Winter Olympics.

A year from Thursday, PyeongChang, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul in Gangwon Province, will host the Winter Olympics, the first in the country and the first in Asia since the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

And most of South Korea's top winter athletes will be in Sapporo, where they'll find out how they're stacked up against their regional competitors ahead of an even bigger showdown in 2018.

In this file photo taken on Dec. 18, 2016, South Korean short track speed skaters Choi Min-jeong competes in the women's 3,000m relay during the International Skating Union World Cup Short Track Speed Skating at Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)

There will be 64 gold medals overall at stake, and South Korea will have 142 athletes in action.

South Korea finished third at the 2011 Winter Asian Games in Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan, with 13 golds, 12 silvers and 13 bronzes, finishing behind the host Kazakhstan and Japan.

For 2017, South Korea has set its sights on a bigger goal -- 15 gold medals for a second-place finish.

South Korea has placed second at two previous Winter Asiads -- in Gangneung, South Korea, in 1999 and in Aomori, Japan, in 2003.

Six years ago in Kazakhstan, five of South Korea's 13 gold medals came from speed skating, followed by four in short track, three in alpine skiing and one from cross-country skiing.

This year, speed skating is expected to be a gold mine again, led by two converted short trackers.

Lee Seung-hoon, the 2010 Olympic champion in the men's 10,000m, is currently the world No. 1 in mass start, in which 24 skaters race around the oval for 16 laps at the same time. Kim Bo-reum, an emerging star on the women's side, leads all female skaters in mass start this season, too.

Lee is one of only two Asians ranked among the top 10 in the world mass start rankings this season, with Ryosuke Tsuchiya of Japan in fifth place.

In the women's mass start, Kim's closest pursuer from Asia is Li Dan of China, who is ranked fifth, followed by Nana Takagi of Japan in sixth.

Lee is also a favorite in the 10,000m. Kim is seen as a leading contender in the 5,000m.

Another South Korean star, Lee Sang-hwa, is the two-time reigning Olympic champion and the world record holder in the women's 500m, but she may have a tougher time than Lee Seung-hoon or Kim Bo-reum in Sapporo.

The top three skaters in her distance this season are all from Asia, with Nao Kodaira and Maki Tsuji, two Japanese sprinters, leading the way, followed by Yu Jing of China in third place.

South Korean speed skater Lee Sang-hwa takes a break from her training at Gangneung Oval in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 3, 2017, ahead of the International Skating Union World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships. (Yonhap)

Lee, who has battled injuries all winter, is in seventh place and hasn't had a 500m victory this season. In comparison, Kodaira is unbeaten in six 500m races during the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup season, while Yu has two wins, along with a silver and two bronze medals.

The two Lees and Kim will race at the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships in Gangneung, starting Thursday, in their build-up to the Sapporo event.

South Korea has dominated the short track competition this season, as expected, and the trend will likely hold up in Sapporo, with only China and perhaps Kazakhstan expected to offer any threat.

South Korea could sweep up all gold medals in the women's short track. Choi Min-jeong and Shim Suk-hee, ranked world No. 1 in the women's 1,000m and the 1,500m, respectively, should cruise to the gold in their main events. They will also likely lead South Korea to the gold medal in the 3,000m relay, and Choi has been making enough progress in the 500m -- historically South Korea's weakest event -- to be considered a contender in Sapporo.

On the men's side, the 2010 Olympic champion Lee Jung-su is enjoying a career renaissance, as he has climbed to world No. 2 in the 1,500m with two consecutive ISU World Cup titles. He should face little challenge in his main event.

Jim Paek, head coach of the South Korean men's national hockey team, gives out orders during a practice at Goyang Eoulim Nuri Sports Center in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, on Feb. 2, 2017. (Yonhap)

Elsewhere on ice, the men's hockey team, coached by former NHL defenseman Jim Paek, will try to do better than the bronze it won in Kazakhstan.

In 2011, Kazakhstan and Japan finished ahead of South Korea. The three countries should once again jostle for positions on the podium. But South Korea has never beaten Kazakhstan in 11 games, while it has managed just one win and one tie versus 19 losses all-time against Japan.

In men's snowboarding, Lee Sang-ho will be chasing gold medals in slalom and giant slalom. He finished fourth in parallel giant slalom at an International Ski Federation (FIS) Snowboard World Cup in Italy in December, the best World Cup result by a Korean snowboarder. Lee is the top-ranked Asian in both parallel giant slalom and parallel slalom this season.

In men's cross-country skiing, Kim Magnus is a title favorite. Born Magnus Boe to a Norwegian father and a Korean mother, Kim has been competing for his mother's country since 2015, and captured two gold medals at last year's Winter Youth Olympics.

South Korea will also eye medals in men's and women's curling, but will not get a chance to pad its medal tally in bobsleigh and skeleton, the two events where it has excelled in recent years. Sliding sports have never been contested in the Asian Winter Games.

South Korean athletes and officials for the Sapporo Asian Winter Games pose for photos during their team launch ceremony at the National Training Center in Seoul on Feb. 3, 2017. (Yonhap)

North Korea will also participate in the competition. Kyodo News reported earlier in the week that Japan will allow entry to North Korean athletes. While Japan has a travel ban in place on North Korean nationals following Pyongyang's nuclear tests and long-range ballistic missile launches, it will make a special exception for athletes.

About 20 athletes and officials have signed up for the Asian Winter Games, according to the Japanese government and the competition organizers.

The Sapporo event has dealt with some controversy away from the arenas. The organizers have scrambled to move South Korean and Chinese athletes from their original hotel that provided books denying Japan's past wrongdoings in its guest rooms.

The athletes were supposed to stay at APA Hotel and Resort, which came under fire for placing in its rooms books that denied Japan's forced recruitment of World War II sex slaves and the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.

Under pressure from both South Korea and China, the hotel offered to remove those books last month. But the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee (KSOC) demanded a switch of lodging, saying it wanted the athletes to be free of unnecessary distractions, and was granted its wish on Monday.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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