- At what are supposed to be the Peace Olympics, Korea's Lim Hyojun provided a perfect Olympic story with his speedskating gold medal.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea — You can lobby the IOC, and earn the right to host an Olympics, and spend billions of dollars on infrastructure and arenas and villages, and even make temporary peace with your menacing neighbor to the north, but what you cannot do, no matter how much you want, is ensure this:
First full day of the Games … short-track speedskating, perhaps South Korea’s favorite Winter Olympic sport … a South Korean wins gold as the crowd loses its individual voices and collective mind.
Lim Hyojun, however, can take care of that.
Lim won the first gold medal for the host country, in the men’s 1,500-meter event, in one of those great slices of sports pleasure that every Olympics delivers. It was such a perfect Olympic story that you had to remind yourself how unlikely it was.
Lim decided he wanted to be an Olympic speedskater when he watched the great Ahn-Hyun Soo compete in the 2006 Turin Olympics. When PyeongChang won hosting rights, in 2011, Lim set his goal to win gold here.
And with three laps to go, Lim and countryman Hwang Daeheon looked like they might go gold-silver. The cheers were thunderous. But short-track speedskating is one of the most entertaining Olympic sports for the same reason that you should not wager on it: at any moment, a skater can go from medal contention to getting tripped up and looking like a fidget spinner as he slides across the ice into the foam wall.
This is what happened to Hwang. Lim was South Korea’s last hope.
He would say through an interpreter later that, “I was not that nervous compared to the first round of the World Cup. It was quite mysterious.” After his first heat, he told his coach that the semifinal would be harder than the final. Maybe he thought that once he made it to the last race, after all these years, he would be able to finish the job.
He finished it, all right. It was the end of a great night at what are supposed to be the Peace Olympics and actually did feel like it. A contingent of North Korean fans cheered and waved unification flags and danced in an extraordinarily well-orchestrated display. Another crowd was forced to make room when Somebody Important was clearly about to enter the arena, only to cover that Two Important Somebodies had arrived: South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. It made you feel like the big problems in this crazy world could be solved if we all just piled into a big, loud, happy arena to watch short-track speedskating. I am still jet-lagged.
Anyway: It was one of those nights that reminds you what the Olympics can still do. The Olympics, more than any other event, make you realize that sports are only meaningful because they are a shared experience. And different cultures share different experiences. The marathon had a different feel in Athens, site of the ancient Olympics, than it will in Tokyo. Table tennis in Beijing, swimming in Sydney … the location really does matter. And some sports that are huge in the other parts of the world don’t even fill arenas at the Olympics.
Well, the Koreans have fallen hard for short-track speedskating. This was not entirely evident in the minutes leading up to Saturday’s competition; there were a quite a few empty seats, and the general atmosphere felt like a regular-season Division II college basketball game. Then, as the competition started, it became clear: the seats had been empty because Koreans were not interested in sitting around to prove to visitors that they love short-track. They wanted to watch it. When the races started, the joint was rocking.
Between races, two guys with microphones tried to rev up the crowd by singing my favorite song about short-track speedskating, “Uptown Funk.” Every time a Korean passed somebody, the fans roared, even if it was just a heat.
(Not everybody got caught up in the atmosphere. Ebullient 18-year-old American Maame Biney said she was too focused on her skating and her alter ego, Anna Digger. Biney also said that during the race, “my legs were like wooooo.” Pardon me while I follow Maame Biney around for the next 14 days.)
By the end of the night, Lim was a gold-medalist. There was a crazy circle to his journey there: after Lim watched Ahn in Turin, Ahn had a falling-out with South Korean authorities, started competing for Russia and became Viktor Ahn. Ahn is now banned as part of the Russian doping penalties, but in a small way, Lim’s victory was his, too. Ahn had inspired Lim. Ahn had encouraged Lim. Lim said Saturday night, “I’d like to thank Viktor Ahn, too for this win.”
The medal will be Lim’s, not Ahn’s or Hwang Daeheon’s. But the night belonged to South Korea.