With month to go, S. Korea hopes to repeat Winter Olympics success

By 정주원
  • Published : Jan 6, 2014 - 14:57
  • Updated : Jan 6, 2014 - 14:57

As the clock ticks down on the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian resort town of Sochi, South Korea is hoping to duplicate the historic success it enjoyed in Vancouver four years ago, represented by what should be the country's largest-ever Winter Games delegation.

The countdown will hit 30 days on Wednesday for the Feb. 7-23 Sochi Winter Olympics, where South Korea will aim for another strong performance.

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, South Korea won an all-time high of 14 medals. The six gold medals matched the half dozen won in Turin in 2006 as the country's biggest haul in a Winter Olympics.

South Korea has competed in 16 Winter Games and won 23 gold, 14 silver and eight bronze medals. All have come from ice sports, and 19 of the gold medals have been won in short track speed skating.

Before 2010, South Korea had won all of its Winter Games gold medals in short track speed skating. Then in Vancouver, the country picked up three gold medals from speed skating and one from figure skating en route to finishing in fifth place.

South Korea has ranked among the top 10 in medals in five of the past six Winter Games, and the goal is to make it six out of seven in Russia.

South Korea is expected to field its biggest number of athletes ever at a Winter Olympics in Sochi. The country previously had the largest delegation with 46 athletes and 37 officials in Vancouver.

This year, with qualification spots in some sports still open, the Korean Olympic Committee estimates around 64 South Korean athletes will be competing in Sochi.

Through Sunday, 15 speed skaters, 10 short trackers, three figure skaters and five curlers have booked their Olympic spots. More South Koreans are battling for berths in bobsleigh and skeleton.

Overall, South Korea could be represented in up to six sports. There will be 98 gold medals up for grabs in Sochi.

In November last year, Kim Jae-youl, president of the Korea Skating Union and head of the South Korean delegation to Sochi, stated that the goal was to win "at least four gold medals" in Sochi.

Two of those could come from reigning Olympic champions.

Figure skater Kim Yu-na won the gold in Vancouver with a record score of 228.56 points. She has gone through extended layoffs since then, but returned with a bang last March to win her second career world title. 

Having recently won the South Korean national title with impressive programs, Kim appears to be the favorite in Sochi. She will attempt to become only the third woman to defend an Olympic figure skating gold, after Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt.

Speed skater Lee Sang-hwa, the women's 500-meter champion from Vancouver, currently holds the world record in the distance and hasn't really been challenged the past two seasons. She set her first world record in January last year at an International Skating Union World Cup event, and then broke it three times in November alone, including twice on back-to-back days.

Only two other women, Bonnie Blair and Catriona Le May Doan, have won two straight speed skating gold medals in the 500m.

Shim Suk-hee, a 16-year-old sensation in short track, has also been dominant in recent races and could grab up to two titles, in an individual race and in the 3,000m relay.

Shim's male teammates have struggled this season so far, pushed by Canadian and American rivals in individual and relay events at ISU World Cup stops. Given the history of South Korea's success in Olympic short track and the unpredictability of the sport, the men could still compete for the top of the podium in all short track events.

Speed skater Mo Tae-bum has had an up-and-down stretch since winning the men's 500m title in Vancouver, but appears to be rounding into form in time for Sochi. At his most recent World Cup race in Berlin last month, Mo won both the 500m and 1,000m races. It was the first time Mo won both events at a single World Cup.

Fellow speed skater Lee Seung-hoon won the gold in the 10,000m and the silver in the 5,000m in Vancouver. His medals, coming from events long dominated by bigger and stronger Europeans, rank as among the most surprising victories in South Korean Olympic history. This year, Lee will try to carve a new niche in the team pursuit event.

The women's curling team will make its Olympic debut after making an improbable run to the semifinals at the 2012 world championships.

Elsewhere, freestyle skier Choi Jae-woo in the men's moguls and snowboarder Kim Ho-jun in the men's halfpipe will try to blaze trails in their respective sports.

The KOC also hopes to lay the groundwork in Sochi for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea's PyeongChang, eying up to 20 medals on home soil.

South Korean athletes will assemble on Jan. 23 for the team launch ceremony and the first batch of the delegation will depart for Russia on Feb. 1. (Yonhap News)