GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – Given the orderly nature of South Korean society, it seems a little surprising that short-track speedskating is the country’s most popular Winter Olympic sport.
Outside Gangneung Ice Arena on Tuesday night, people patiently waited their turn to buy fried dumplings, stood in neat lines to get into the Olympic Superstore and posed their children at just the right angle for photos in front of the Olympic rings. Inside the place, it was a madhouse. As skaters crashed into the padded walls and jostled at full speed, a largely South Korean crowd screamed like banshees.
The home team won its third short-track gold medal of the Pyeongchang Games, successfully navigating the chaos of the women’s 3,000-meter relay. The wild spectacle wasn’t confined to the track. In addition to the thrills, spills and disqualifications, the evening featured a K-pop boy band, the North Korean cheerleaders, several men wearing stars-and-stripes jumpsuits and a guy in a cheesehead hat.
Of the eight medals won by the host country, three golds and a bronze have come in short track. Though some Korean skaters say they have felt pressure to perform — and a Canadian skater received threats via the Internet after bumping a South Korean off the podium — Tuesday’s performance gave a happy crowd of about 12,000 exactly what it came to see.
The South Korean team of Choi Min-jeong, Kim Alang, Kim Ye-jin and Shim Suk-hee moved into the lead late in the race and won in four minutes, 7.361 seconds. Italy won silver, and The Netherlands — which set a world record in the B final — was moved up to bronze when China and Canada were both disqualified. South Korea now has 46 Olympic medals in short track, more than any other country.
“It is a glorious performance in the stadium,” Choi said. “It is our home ground, so much more meaningful. We got so cheered up by the crowd.”
The Gangneung Ice Arena sits at the edge of Olympic Park, which was flooded by locals on a chilly but serene evening. Amid a merry atmosphere rich with parents and young children, people posed for selfies with giant metal ice-skate sculptures and life-size mascots made of traditional Korean paper.
There were lots of lines around the park, at McDonalds (long), the Olympic Superstore (insanely long), the Korean food tent (steady) and a booth with “Western food” (the shortest line in the place). You could buy fish-cake soup at the concession stand, but signs warned that “soup-based food” had to be eaten outside before entering the venue. The barbecued sausage on a stick and steamed red-bean buns could be taken in.
The happiness in the park carried over to the arena, particularly when South Korea’s skaters did well in the preliminaries. In the interest of hospitality, the crowd gave a polite golf clap to other athletes. When their own took the ice, they screamed, danced, sang, hooted and unfurled flags.
The North Korean cheerleaders, dressed identically in red jackets and caps, sang songs and waved Korean unification flags. They got to cheer for one of their countrymen, Jong Kwang-Bom, but he fell twice in a men’s 500 heat and finished last.
The chaos in the relay didn’t end with the photo finish. It took several minutes for officials to review all the crashes and physical contact during the race, disqualifying China and Canada. The Netherlands — which was not even in the same race — got the bronze by winning the B final in a world-record time of 4:03.471. It was the first time in Olympic history a short-track medal was won by a team in the B final, which is essentially a consolation round.
South Korea became the first country to earn six Olympic gold medals in one short-track event. As Kim Alang put her face in her hands and wept, Choi collected a flag to carry in a victory lap around the ice.
“This was taking place in Korea, our home country,” she said. “So we put a lot more effort into making a good record at this event.”