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Published : 2014-02-13 20:19
Updated : 2014-02-13 20:19

South Korean speed skater Lee Kyou-hyuk waves to the crowd after completing his 1,000-meter race at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

SOCHI, Russia (Yonhap) ― The man who once shed tears over a fruitless Winter Games ended his love-and-hate relationship with the Olympics with a smile.

South Korean speed skater Lee Kyou-hyuk finished the men’s 1,000 meters on Wednesday at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 21st place in a time of 1:10.049.

It was Lee’s final race in his sixth Olympics. The flag bearer for South Korea at the opening ceremony here, Lee, 35, has competed in more Olympics, summer or winter, than any other South Korean.

Lee has won virtually everything a speed skater can win, including four world sprint titles and one world single distance championship in the 500 meters. He once held world records in both the 1,000 and the 1,500.

Yet an Olympic medal eluded Lee in his half-dozen trips. Lee often enjoyed good stretches before the Winter Games, only to falter on the biggest stage. The closest he came to winning a medal was in the 1,000 at the 2006 Turin Olympics, when he finished in fourth place by five-hundredths of a second.

Lee went into the 2010 Vancouver Games in great form. At the world sprint championships held only about a month before the Olympics, Lee won both 1,000-meter races en route to claiming his third overall title.

He failed to duplicate that success at the Olympics, ending in ninth place in the 1,000 and 15th place in the 500. Afterward, Lee was overcome with emotions, saying it saddened him to keep fighting a losing battle.

His final Olympics proved to be another futile one, as he finished the 500 in 18th on Monday and the 1,000 in 21st on Wednesday.

No tears were shed this time, however, as Lee reflected on his career as a “happy athlete.”

“This was my last race as a skater, and I think the Olympic Games have been just an excuse for me to extend my career,” he said. “I’ve been saying I wanted to win a medal, but I’ve competed at all these Olympics because I simply wanted to keep skating.”

Lee said his legacy will be that of an athlete who ended his career without an Olympic medal.

“I’ve come this far to try to win a medal, and I’ve learned a lot over the years,” he said. “I ended another Olympics without a medal, but I’ve also matured thanks to the Olympics.”

After gritting his teeth toward the finish, Lee skated around the oval, smiling and waving at the crowds at Adler Arena Skating Center.

“I am relieved but I am also feeling a lot of emotions,” he said. “Of my six Olympics, I will remember this one the most.”

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