Choi Yong-koo, a senior official of the South Korean short track speed skating team at Beijing 2022, speaks at a press conference at the Main Media Centre in Beijing on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
BEIJING -- The two South Korean short trackers who were penalized in their recent Olympic races in Beijing committed no violations that warranted disqualification, an international referee from the country said Tuesday, adding that the competition at Beijing 2022 has already been marred by bad officiating.
Choi Yong-koo, a senior official on the South Korean short track team in Beijing and an International Skating Union (ISU) referee, made those remarks at a press conference held in light of the disqualification for Hwang Dae-heon and Lee June-seo in the men's 1,000m race Monday night.
"Referees are humans, and you can make a mistake," Choi said. "But if mistakes are repeated, then it's intentional."
In the first semifinal heat, Hwang, the 1,000m world record holder, crossed the line first but was later disqualified for "an illegal late passing causing contact." Moments later in the second semifinal heat, Lee finished his race in second place but was sent packing after getting called for "a lane change causing contact."
After reviewing footage of both races, Choi said neither South Korean skater was at fault.
In the first heat, Hwang moved from the middle of the pack into the lead with four laps left in the nine-lap race. Ren Ziwei of China dropped to second, with another Chinese, Li Wenlong, in third.
According to Choi, Ren attempted to retake the lead on a corner and ended up making contact with Li behind him. But the referee determined that it was Hwang who'd made illegal contact.
"There was no physical contact from Hwang Dae-heon whatsoever when he made his pass," Choi said. "He should not have been disqualified."
Choi said Lee, too, made a perfectly legal pass. Choi said Wu Dajing of China pushed Shaoang Liu of Hungary, and Liu ended up coming in contact with Lee before falling on the ice.
"Based on my analysis of the footage, there were issues with the Chinese skater (Wu) and the Hungarian skater (Liu)," Choi said. "Lee June-seo made his pass legally on the inside."
Though there was no South Korean in the final, there was plenty of pandemonium with medals at stake, too. Shaolin Sandor Liu of Hungary crossed the line first, ahead of Ren, but received a yellow card over two penalties in that race as Ren moved up to gold.
Right at the line, Liu had his left arm stretched as if to block Ren, while the Chinese grabbed that arm and caused the Hungarian to fall.
"As far as I am concerned, all five skaters in the final had grounds for disqualification," Choi said. "But as a referee myself, I absolutely don't understand the decision to give the yellow card to the Hungarian skater there."
A long-held adage in sports has it that the best officials are the ones you don't notice. Choi echoed that sentiment Tuesday.
"Referees must not dominate races," Choi said. "They have to help races run smoothly and right the wrong."
Choi said there is much less room for error or biased officiating, with several cameras installed around the rink and a video referee, away from the view of the fans and media, in charge of reviewing different angles of disputed situations.
The ISU promptly rejected South Korea's protest of Hwang's penalty, though, since disqualification stemming from a rule violation cannot be challenged.
Choi said it was fully expected that the ISU would reject that appeal, but South Korea protested anyway because it wanted to force the ISU to take refereeing issues seriously and to ensure South Korean skaters would no longer be unfairly penalized.
"The moment the ISU acknowledges its wrongdoing, referees will lose their credibility and authority. So that will never happen," Choi added. "But I believe the ISU will at least express regret over the situation."
Choi said the referee in Monday's races, Peter Worth, is regarded as one of the best in the field, and he also worked at PyeongChang 2018.
"Looking at his body of work here, I have to wonder why he was making such decisions," Choi said. (Yonhap)