Kim Dong-sung confident of short-track glory at PyeongChang

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If asked to name Korea’s best short-track speed skater, many would be at a loss over whom to choose― 1998 Olympic gold medalist Kim Dong-sung or Ahn Hyun-soo, now named Viktor Ahn of Russia.

At most Winter Games, Korea had boasted dominance almost exclusively in short-track — until Kim Yu-na came to sudden prominence in figure skating in the mid 2000s ― and at the center of such dominance was Kim Dong-sung, who conquered the sport from the late 1990s to the early 2000s when he relinquished his throne to Ahn.

Kim also wrote history when he was stripped of his gold medal in favor of Apolo Ohno. Kim finished first in the 1,500-meter event at the 2002 Winter Games, but was disqualified for blocking the U.S. skater. As a result, the International Skating Union approved the use of video replay.

Kim, who hung up his skates in 2005 due to an injury to his right knee, has spent the last 10 years coaching young skaters, giving lectures and providing commentary at international events. In February 2011, however, the Washington Post reported that Kim had allegedly abused his skaters, inflicting corporal punishment on those he had been coaching in Virginia and Maryland. He was cleared of all charges, but U.S. Speedskating imposed a lifetime ban on the 34-year-old, which the American Arbitration Association reduced to six years.

“It was a false accusation,” Kim said in a recent interview. “The parents of the skaters I had been coaching took advantage of my vulnerability as an Olympic gold medalist ― I had a lot to lose, and they used this to threaten me.”

Kim explained that at the core of such accusations were parents and coaches motivated by financial disputes and jealousy of his success. But despite this incident, Kim hopes to continue coaching young skaters, who he says are the future of Korean short-track.

“I still receive a lot of coaching offers,” he said. “Generally speaking, I want to continue contributing to the development of short-track speed skating, whether that be coaching or working for the Korea Skating Union (KSU).”

However, he doesn’t dream of one day coaching the national team.

Rather, he hopes to focus on budding skaters ― those who are just starting to enjoy the sport.

“Some say that as a medalist, I should be coaching skaters good enough to make the national team,” he said. “But I think I would do better as a coach for young skaters who are just starting out. There are plenty of good coaches out there for the national team. Plus, being a medalist doesn’t make me a good coach.”

Support for young skaters

Retirement had left Kim dumbfounded ― he had spent his whole life skating, but there wasn’t much he could do now that he had called an end to his professional skating career.

“Back then, not many former athletes went on to establish foundations,” he recalled. “Medalists didn’t know what came after winning a medal, and there weren’t as many sports marketing agencies either. So I signed with an entertainment agency.”

When Kim began appearing on television more as a celebrity and less as a sports headliner, fans began to turn their backs on him.

“They didn’t like Kim Dong-sung, the celebrity ― they wanted to see Kim Dong-sung, the skater,” he said.

From then on, he decided to remain on the ice, in commentary booths or in lecture halls.

Kim provided commentary during the Sochi Winter Games, when the Korean men’s medal haul came to a standstill. The two gold medals the country won in short-track came in the women’s 1,000-meter and 3,000-meter relay events.

Kim emphasized that these young skaters need encouragement from their fellow countrymen.

“Athletes get tremendously encouraged with the support of fans,” he said. “Think about how many Koreans were enthusiastically cheering for the Korean national football team during the 2002 World Cup. I think this was the driving force behind the team’s final-four finish,” Kim said.

Kim noted that athletes seem to have failed at overcoming the pressure that asked of them stronger performances than Viktor Ahn.

“As media continued to compare Korean skaters to Ahn, it would have been hard for them to overcome the anxiety,” Kim said.

Ahn, who snagged two gold medals in the 1,000 and 1,500-meter events at the 2006 Olympics, switched allegiance to Russia in 2011 after he failed to make the national squad ahead of the 2010 Games allegedly because of an internal conflict.

Ahn’s decision to leave Korea was the talk of the town throughout the Olympic season.

“I was pretty sure that some people, including some Koreans, wished for the defeat of Korean skaters,” Kim said.

Though he never directly disparaged Ahn’s decision to represent Russia, Kim flatly said “changing nationality only to appear at the Olympics was a mistake.”

“We may see another Ahn in 2018 if an athlete fails to make the PyeongChang Games’ squad. But that’s not right. Young athletes have to have pride in the fact that they are representing their country,” he said.

Kim added that he also didn’t give much thought to national pride throughout his career, but stressed that he has now realized he cannot overemphasize the value of it.

“Athletes should be more aware that each of them represents their country,” he said. “It’s easy to forget this, but this is what will push them to do their best,” Kim said.

Volunteering at PyeongChang Games

Kim stressed that the future of Korean short-track is bright, and predicted at least one gold medal for the men’s team at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games.

“The thing about short-track is that it is difficult to predict who will win what,” he said. “Athletes all experience ups and downs throughout their careers. For instance, Chae Ji-hoon had been a gold medal favorite going into the 1998 Olympics, but I ended up topping the podium.

“Plus, short-track is a mass-start sport, not a one-on-one sport like taekwondo or judo,” he continued. “If you trip over something and fall, that’s it. That’s why we say that only God knows who will take home the gold. But I do want to ask our skaters to do their best at PyeongChang. If they finish empty handed, then the world will one day forget that Korea was, and is, a short-track powerhouse.”

At the PyeongChang Games, Kim said that it is likely he will be on scene volunteering or providing commentary.

“But to be honest, I’d rather be volunteering for the KSU rather than providing commentary,” he said. “If I go as a pundit, I represent one broadcaster; but as a volunteer, I will be able to help any and everyone.”

In the meantime, Kim sees himself holding more lectures for young students and businesspeople.

“I speak to them about my life, my dreams and my goals,” he said. “All are welcome.”

By Baek Byung-yeul, Kwon Ji-youn – The Korea Times

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