GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Most of the other events now under way in PyeongChang are games. But short-track speedskating? Around these parts, friend, this is an event.
Saturday night marked the first medal round for short-track speed skating — in this case, the men’s 1,500-meter event — and that meant Hwang Daeheon, one of this speed skating-obsessed nation’s top dogs and a favorite to capture gold, would be on the ice.
That prospect was enough to pack the Gangneung Ice Arena with an audience that included Vice President Mike Pence, fresh off a controversial Opening Ceremony protest, and South Korean President Moon Jae-In. All around them, the atmosphere was straight out of a college basketball game. DJs pumped up the crowd before the races, and a live New Orleans-style jazz-funk band powered through the first break. Were it not for the presence of dozens of cheerleaders from North Korea — oh, and the fact that the crowd even cheered the freaking refs — this could have been a Duke-Carolina game.
Speed skating has held a preeminent place in South Korean sporting lore since 1992, when Kim Ki-Hoon won gold in the 1,500 meters. Since then, South Korea has created and fueled a steady pipeline of medal-winning speed skaters, now totaling nine medals over the seven Games prior to PyeongChang. Olympically speaking, it’s what basketball is to America, what hockey is to Russia, what soccer is to Brazil: a sport that the nation is seeking to claim and hold as its own with a constant, and occasionally excessive, emphasis on speed skating from youth. Saturday would be a night that so much of that preparation paid off.
Of course, as if the tension in the building wasn’t already high enough, the presence of both Pence and the cheerleaders at the arena provided an extra layer of political contrast. The cheerleaders, all clad in red warmup suits, waved white flags in unison, even when a South Korean skater was on the ice:
When they left after the second round of races, they departed silently, walking in step, the only sounds as they walked the whisk of their warmups and the click of camera shutters and flashes all around them. Pence, on the other hand, has made it clear he’s in South Korea for the express purpose of reminding the world not to fall for North Korea’s charm offensive.
Still, fans from both sides of the DMZ got to see some world-class racing. One side story to the main event: 18-year-old American star-to-be Maame Biney advanced to the quarterfinals in her first race. She’ll race again Tuesday night.
But the South Koreans owned the spotlight. Cheers followed Hwang wherever he went, starting with the moment that he stepped onto the ice for Heat 3. He took the lead with nine laps remaining, and the crowd cheered louder than a Talladega grandstand with Dale Earnhardt in the lead. In his semifinal round, he finished second to countryman Lim Hyojun, and both men pumped their fists as they crossed the finish line.
(In between that moment and the final, the South Korean women’s 3,000-meter relay team set a new world record amid sheer chaos on the ice, and it passed with just one quick — albeit earsplitting — cheer. That’s how ridiculous this night was for South Korea.)
The final A and B races featured three South Koreans: Hwang, Lim and Yira Seo. In the B race, Seo finished second, letting the lead slip in the final two laps. And in the sheer-madness, nine-man A race, Hwang and Lim pulled off a brilliant inside-outside move with nine laps to go and jumped from mid-pack to the front.
But with three laps remaining, chaos struck. Hwang caught an edge on his left skate and slid hard into the wall, ending his chance at a medal. He hung his head as the race went on around him, and his countryman Lim won the race and set a new Olympic record with a time of 2 minutes, 10.485 seconds. Hwang skated to the sideline and laid his head on the wall next to his coaches as Lim skated around him, exultant.
It wasn’t quite the result South Korea expected, but it was the medal the nation wanted: its first gold of the 2018 Olympics. And it marked a brilliant end to a remarkable night for the host nation.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Busbee: South Korea wins first gold in unexpected fashion
• Adelson: Why Olympics could be start of Chelios’ coaching career
• South Korean short track relay team falls … and still sets world record
• Five things to know about short track speed skating
• Was Olympic Opening Ceremony hacked by North Korea?