South Korean athletes are set to go for another top-10 finish in the medal tally in the 2014 Winter Olympics, which kick off in Sochi, Russia, Friday.
Officials of the Korean Olympic Committee have said that the goal is to win at least four gold medals, which could place the country in the top 10 for the third straight time. The Wall Street Journal forecasts the country to place joint fifth with Russia and the Netherlands in terms of the number of gold medals, or sixth in the total medal tally.
Four years ago in Vancouver, Canada, South Korea ranked fifth, its all-time best record, with six gold, six silver and two bronze medals. It has sent its largest ever athletic delegation of 41 men and 30 women to Sochi.
South Korea is competing in six disciplines except for ice hockey. The six are skiing, skating, biathlon, bobsleigh, curling and luge.
In Sochi, figure skater Kim Yu-na, speed skaters Lee Sang-hwa, Mo Tae-bum and Lee Seung-hoon seek to repeat golden Olympic performances.
Kim, a high-profile athlete, will attempt to become the third legendary figure in the world to win an Olympic title in figure skating back to back after Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt.
Kim shot to stardom by winning South Korea’s first ever gold medal in the ladies’ figure skating with a record score of 228.56 points. Sochi will be her last Olympic contest. After Vancouver, she was long absent from competition before announcing her comeback and ambitious goal last March. In the short run-up to Sochi, she clinched the South Korean national title and qualified as a heavy favorite.
She faces tough challenges from both long-time rivals and rising stars. They include Japan’s Mao Asada, Akiko Suzuki and Kanako Murakami, and Russia’s 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia and 18-year-old Adelina Sotnikova.
Experts say Kim seems likely to top the podium again barring something very unusual. As the defending champion, she is going to have to be soundly beaten for her title to be taken away.
Short and free programs in ladies’ figure skating will start at midnight Feb. 20 and 21, respectively, in Korean time.
Lee Sang-hwa, the women’s 500 meters Olympic champion in Vancouver, currently holds the world speed skating record in the distance at 36.36 seconds. She hasn’t been seriously challenged over the past two seasons. She established her first world record in January last year at a World Cup event, and then broke it three times in November, including twice in two consecutive days.
Only two other rivals, Bonnie Blair and Catriona Le May Doan, have won two back-to-back speed skating gold medals in the 500 meters.
Women’s 500 meter and 1,000 meter races will start at 9:45 p.m. on Feb. 11 and at 11 p.m. on Feb. 13, respectively.
Mo Tae-bum also will take a shot at his second straight golden performance in the men’s 500 meters in speed skating. Most recently, he won an International Skating Union World Cup race last month.
He also ranked second in 1,000 meters behind Shani Davis of the U.S. in Vancouver. In Sochi, the two are expected to clash in the event again for the gold.
Men’s 500 meters and 1,000 meters will begin at 10 p.m. on Feb. 10 and 11 p.m. on Feb. 12, respectively.
Lee Seung-hoon, who won the men’s 10,000 meters four years ago, ranked second in team pursuit in the 2013 world championships and the current World Cup season. He is the first Korean favorite speed skater to challenge for the gold in Sochi. The men’s 5000 meters will start at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
South Korea is also counting on Shim Suk-hee for gold medals in short track speed skating, hopefully in both individual races and the 3,000-meter relay. The 17-year-old is the overall ISU World Cup champion for the past two seasons. She took nine titles in the 2013-14 World Cup season and 10 races in the previous seasons.
Women’s 3,000 meter relay semifinals and finals will begin at 7:54 p.m. and 8:35 p.m. on Feb. 10.
The South Korean women’s curling team, semifinalist at the 2012 world championships, is making its Olympic debut on Feb. 10.
Also for the first time, South Korea will be represented in every event of luge ― men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles and team relay.
The Winter Olympic Games, 22nd of its kind, will begin with the opening ceremony at 1:14 a.m. Saturday and end with the closing ceremony at 1:00 a.m. on Feb. 24.
The Sochi Winter Olympics is the largest ever with 88 countries competing, six more than in Vancouver. As of Wednesday, 2,873 athletes ― 1,712 men and 1,161 women ― are participating in the Olympics.
By Chun Sung-woo (firstname.lastname@example.org)