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GANGNEUNG, South Korea – It was a tough night for North Korean short-track speed skater Kwang Bom Jong, who fell twice in the heat phase of the men’s 500 meters and was eventually disqualified for pushing off a Japanese skater.
For diplomatic purposes, Jong was added as the 33rd entry into what was supposed to be a 32-racer field, but he didn’t last long.
On the first start, he fell almost immediately after coming off the line. As he landed, he reached out his hand in a way that looked to some in the crowd like he was trying to trip Japan’s Ryosuke Sakazume.
Jong, flanked by a handler, did not stop to speak with reporters after the race. He was only entered in this one event and thus his Olympics were, while eventful, quickly over.
Sakazume said that he wasn’t exactly sure what happened and thus didn’t think Jong tried to trip him on purpose, as some in the crowd believed. Short-track speed skating, particularly the 500-meter race, is rife with collisions, disqualifications and general mayhem.
“I believe it was unintentional,” Japan’s Ryosuke Sakazume said. “His hand happened to be by my skate as he fell down.”
“I don’t know what was his intention,” Japan’s coach, Jonathan Guilmette, said. “It is really hard to judge what’s the intention. I don’t know if he tried to grab the skates or if he is just trying to hold onto something like a reflex – there are so many hands all over in our sport. That was a reflex thing more than trying to trip over someone else.”
Officials opted for a restart even though Jong hadn’t been bumped by any other skater and fell on his own. Under the rules, the race should have just continued.
The second start didn’t go much better. Jong remained upright but only through half a lap when he again got mixed up with Sakazume. This time Jong pushed Sakazume, who was able to remain on his feet anyway. Jong, however, fell before sliding across the ice and crashing into the side boards.
Jong finished the race in a distant fourth and was later disqualified by the judges for the maneuver.
The packed house at the Gangneung Ice Arena went crazy at the scene. Short-track skating is very popular in South Korea and the entry of a North Korean athlete was met with great anticipation. Few, if any, in attendance had ever seen a North Korean compete before.
While there has been much fanfare over the women’s hockey team featuring a combined roster of North and South Koreans, that sport is not popular here. Short-track speed skating, though, produces some of the rowdiest crowds of the Games. Tuesday was capped by a gold medal victory by the South Koreans in the ladies’ 3,000-meter relay.
Adding to the scene, dozens of red-clad, unification-flag waving North Korean cheerleaders were in attendance to root Jong on.
Instead, it was a memorable fall and disqualification.
Sakazume said that’s short-track racing. Almost everyone has been disqualified at some point. Just making it through the race is enough for a measure of celebration.
“Each one of us really intended to win the race,” Sakazume, who finished second and advanced through qualifying, said. “We intended to maintain our initial nice image. But as the race went on, it just didn’t happen.”
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