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Question marks linger for S. Korea with Beijing Winter Olympics nearing

All News 08:00 January 02, 2022

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 2 (Yonhap) -- With only about a month left until the start of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, South Korea still doesn't know if one of its best medal hopes will compete in China.

That bit of uncertainty is unwelcoming for a country that may fall well short of the glory it enjoyed as the host of the previous Winter Olympics four years ago.

The athlete in question is Shim Suk-hee, a two-time gold medalist in short track speed skating. On Dec. 21, Shim was suspended for two months by the Korea Skating Union (KSU) for making disparaging comments about her teammates and coaching staff in a text exchange with a coach during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Shim has declined to appeal that decision with the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee (KSOC), and she may either file for a court injunction or simply accept her penalty.

In this file photo from Dec. 21, 2021, South Korean short track speed skater Shim Suk-hee speaks to reporters before attending a disciplinary hearing by the Korea Skating Union (KSU) at the KSU's headquarters in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Whether Shim ends up skating in Beijing or not, the ongoing saga will surely create a soap opera and circus-like atmosphere around the national short track team either way.

If Shim can't change her fate, then the remaining skaters will face persistent questions about whether they can bring home medals without her.

But if Shim is reinstated for Beijing, then some of the same skaters who had been mocked and denigrated by Shim in her texts will have to team up with her.

In the same text chain, Shim had also hinted at trying to push off or trip up one particular teammate, Choi Min-jeong, out of spite. Shim and Choi got tangled up and crashed into the wall during the women's 1,000m final at PyeongChang 2018, and the disclosure of Shim's text messages raised suspicions that the collision might have been premeditated on Shim's part.

However, the KSU let Shim off the hook on those charges. It said, while Shim appeared to have deliberately pushed off Choi, it couldn't determine whether Shim did so to protect herself or to prevent Choi from winning a medal.

In this EPA file photo from Dec. 18, 2021, members of the South Korean women's curling team celebrate their 8-5 victory over Latvia in the final playoff game at the Olympic Qualification Event in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. (Yonhap)

Immediately after those text messages were leaked in the media, Choi demanded a thorough investigation and openly called on Shim to stop calling her in a belated attempt to apologize.

Against this backdrop, even if Shim gets the green light to go to Beijing, Shim and Choi, the national team's two most decorated skaters, will have little time to mend fences.

Also, if the two skaters somehow go up against each other in individual races, any collision or crash will probably be viewed in a suspicious light given their history.

These off-ice headaches are the last thing South Korea needs in short track, where it has been losing its stranglehold in international competitions.

The Olympic quota places were determined by skaters' performance in International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup competitions, four of them in total. South Korea won seven gold, six silver and six bronze medals, a total made more respectable by a late push in the final World Cup event in November.

Choi struggled with leg injuries she sustained during the first World Cup and walked away with just one gold. Kim Ji-yoo, who finished third behind Shim and Choi in the Olympic trials, suffered a broken ankle in November and is questionable for the Olympics.

In this Dec. 11, 2021, file photo provided by the Korea Ski Association, South Korean alpine snowboarder Lee Sang-ho holds up his silver medal from the men's parallel slalom at the International Ski Federation Snowboard World Cup in Cortina Bannoye, Russia. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

On the men's side, Hwang Dae-heon led South Korea with three individual World Cup titles this season, but he has been hampered by a nagging back injury.

South Korea leads all nations with 24 Olympic gold medals in short track, and its 48 medals overall also put South Korea in first place. China and Canada are tied for second with 33 medals apiece, and the gap will likely have tightened by the end of the Beijing Olympics.

Given the state of affairs in short track and dearth of viable medal hopes in other sports, the KSOC has set a modest medal target. It is counting on two gold medals at most for a top-15 finish.

That would pale in comparison with what South Korea achieved at PyeongChang 2018. The host won five gold, eight silver and four bronze medals to finish seventh in the medal race then.

In PyeongChang, South Korea won medals from six different sports: short track, speed skating, skeleton, bobsleigh, curling and snowboarding.

South Korea will have a handful of PyeongChang medalists back in speed skating in Beijing, though few, if any, are considered serious gold medal contenders.

In this USA Today Sports file photo via Reuters from Dec. 3, 2021, Cha Min-kyu of South Korea competes in the men's 500m during the International Skating Union Speed Skating World Cup at Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Yonhap)

The reigning men's mass start gold medalist, Lee Seung-hoon, will be racing in his fourth Olympic Games. He finished the ISU World Cup standings in fifth place, one below his teammate, Chung Jae-won.

Cha Min-kyu, who won silver in the men's 500m four years ago, ranked 11th in the World Cup standings this season.

On the women's side, Kim Bo-reum will eye her second straight Olympic medal in the mass start after winning silver in 2018. She was eighth in this season's World Cup rankings.

Medal hopes are much bleaker in sliding events, with Yun Sung-bin, the 2018 Olympic men's skeleton gold medalist, not having been able to recapture that magic this season.

As of Dec. 31, Yun had competed at five International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation (IBSF) World Cup events this season and had yet to reach the podium. He was only 13th overall in the World Cup standings, two spots below his 22-year-old teammate, Jung Seung-gi.

Won Yun-jong, who led the four-man bobsleigh team to silver in PyeongChang, is 20th in the World Cup rankings this season and isn't seen as a medal threat this time around.

In this EPA file photo from Dec. 12, 2021, South Korean bobsledders Won Yun-jong, Kim Dong-hyun, Kim Jin-su and Jung Hyun-woo are in action during the first run of the four-man bobsleigh event at the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation World Cup in Winterberg, Germany. (Yonhap)

Betting on medals from curling or snowboarding may be the wiser course of action.

The women's curling team, led by skip Kim Eun-jung, will go for a second straight medal in Beijing, after stunning the curling world with a silver medal in PyeongChang.

Alpine snowboarder Lee Sang-ho, who also grabbed a surprise silver at PyeongChang 2018, is leading the International Ski Federation World Cup standings this season, on the strength of one gold and two silver medals in four events so far.

The deadline to submit entries for Beijing is Jan. 24. The KSOC said on Dec. 23 that it expects to send about 60 athletes in six sports.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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