Bullying scandal on speed-skating team unsettles South Korean fans

The South Korean ladies’ speed skating team crossed the line on Wednesday night.

This time, at least, they did so together.

Wednesday’s non-medal consolation event at the Gangneung Oval was the first race for the trio since Monday night, when more than half a million outraged South Koreans signed a petition demanding that two members of the team, Bo-Reum Kim and Ji Woo Park, lose their positions on the national squad for bullying their teammate Seon-Yeong Noh.

At the Oval on Wednesday, home-team cheers for the individual members of the squad erupted into a roar as Noh’s name was announced.

“We’re cheering her loud. For encouragement!” said a spectator waving a South Korean flag.

When Noh fell behind at a speed-skating team qualifier earlier this week, her teammates skated on without her. They finished four seconds ahead, before shaming Noh on live TV for the team’s seventh-place result.

Noh sat on a bench sobbing as the team’s Dutch coach, Bob de Jong, tried to console her. Kim and Park turned their backs on her before leaving separately.

On Wednesday, the speed skaters suited up in matching blue spandex for a non-medal race. But as they competed against Poland, they were trailed by a national outcry over whether unity in one of South Korea’s most dependable Winter Olympic podium events had somehow lost its stride.

South Korean Olympic spectator

Byung-Soo Kim, left, is saddened by the bullying episode. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

“Too much focus on individual victories. They lost the Olympic spirit, the sportsmanship,” said Byung-Soo Kim, a Korean-born American spectator wearing a star-spangled toque with a South Korean patch.

‘A disappointing outcome’

After Monday’s 500-metre pursuit, Kim told reporters that her team was skating well, but she added with a smirk that “the last skater couldn’t keep pace, which meant we had a disappointing outcome.”

It was clear that Kim was referring to Noh — and Park explicitly named her afterwards.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t think this would happen with Seon-Yeong,” Park told a TV station.

Noh had dropped behind her teammates during Monday’s competition, but the distance that grew between her and her teammates seemed bizarre to fans of Olympic long-track skating, given that the clock only stops once the final teammate finishes.

Team pursuit harnesses the physics of drafting to minimize drag forces by having skaters’ bodies aligned tightly together. Kim and Park’s decision to pull away from Noh was counterproductive, as bunching together might have allowed her to reduce overall drag.

After Kim and Park blamed Noh over their failure to advance to the semifinals, Kim made a tearful apology during a hastily organized press conference Monday. But her words did little to quell public anger over the remarks.

Athletic-wear brand NEPA confirmed it will not be extending a sponsorship deal with Kim after her controversial comments and an online call to boycott NEPA products.

A question of unity

As Kim and Park’s names were announced on Wednesday, audible boos rang out from South Korean fans standing up in the bleachers.

While spectators at the Gangneung Oval wondered whether Noh, Kim and Park could recapture their teamwork, a larger question looming over speed skating in South Korea was whether hyper-competitiveness had poisoned the sport.

South Korean speed skating fans

Min-Jung Kang, left, said the South Korean speed skating federation has fostered a toxic competitiveness in the national skating program. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

It’s a deep problem, said Min-Jung Kang as the crack of a starting gun sounded and the Canadian and Japanese ladies’ teams raced forward. She lamented that the South Korean skating federation only supports athletes they see as having podium potential, fostering a toxic competitiveness in the national skating program.

“Of course I want to see them as one team,” she said. “This is the Olympics, it’s about being together.”

But she acknowledged that there’s “a fundamental problem with how the [South Korean skating federation] works, and it’s affecting the teamwork. How do they solve that?”

It could be time for soul-searching within South Korean speed skating and a culture of wanting to win at almost any cost, Seoul’s Kumin Daily newspaper reported. In an editorial, the newspaper referred to an interview Noh gave last month in which she called out divisions within the team, including the use of separate training facilities.

‘Teamwork is better’

Coach Baek Cheol-gi claimed that Noh chose to skate third in the last lap on Monday, a statement she disputed, saying she was ready to be in the middle of the pack.

Noh said she had been hoping to claim a gold medal to honour her brother, former short track champion Jin-Kyu, who died of bone cancer in 2016.

Retired Korean-American skater Simon Cho, who competed in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, has criticized the harsh culture of the South Korean team he competed for.

The Olympian told the New York Times he was beaten with hockey sticks as part of early technical discipline. In 2013, the International Skating Union banned Cho for two years after he admitted to tampering with Canadian competitor Olivier Jean’s skates, an action he said he regrets but also attributed to pressure from the former short-track national coach.

After all the drama, Kim, Park and Noh ended up losing Thursday’s race to Team Poland, resulting in an eighth-place overall finish.

“They lost, but they did better,” said Byung-Soo Kim, who still cheered them on in the stands. “It’s OK. To me, teamwork is better.”

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