If you like your Olympic competition staid and sportsmanlike, the short track speedskating rink isn’t the place.
The skaters’ helmets and pads are a dead giveaway elbows will be flying at high speeds.
Darting down low or around the pack to secure a better position can cause crashes that earned the sport its reputation as roller derby on ice. Throw in the fact that South Korea is a hotbed for short track and it makes sense that Gangneung Ice Arena will seat 12,000 spectators for the rock ’em, sock ’em action.
How prickly and passionate is the host country about the sport that has been its best? Apolo Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian, was once public enemy No. 1 there.
At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, South Koreans believed Ohno stole the gold from Kim Dong-sung, who finished first in the 1,500 meters but was disqualified for blocking. Ohno threw up his arms as he tried to pass Kim, as though to cry foul. When Ohno claimed his gold, thousands of angry emails shut down the U.S. Olympic Committee server for hours.
The animosity toward Ohno grew so heated that the entire American short-track team withdrew from a World Cup event held in South Korea in 2003, citing death threats against Ohno. In 2005, he traveled in South Korea, reportedly under police guard.
Ohno will be at the rink in Gangneung doing commentary for NBC, the U.S. network carrying the games.
The five days of short track begin Feb. 10 with the men’s 1,500 meters.
Some things to watch in short track at the Pyeongchang Games:
No Viktor the Great
Six-time gold medalist Viktor Ahn won’t be returning to skate in his birth country after competing as a Russian in the 2016 Sochi Olympics. Russian officials said the International Olympic Committee has refused to grant Ahn an invitation amid its vetting of the country’s athletes for possible doping links. The IOC refusals for some athletes are separate from the doping bans for 43 Russian athletes because of what the Olympic body ruled was a doping program and cover-up at the Sochi Games. Ahn wrote an open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach expressing his outrage that he wasn’t given a “concrete reason” for his exclusion from the games. He won his first four Olympic medals for South Korea in the 2006 Turin Games when he was known as Ahn-Hyun Soo. After a dispute with South Korea’s short track powers, Ahn switched his nationality to Russia and won three golds in Sochi. He was 0.077 seconds from sweeping all four golds. The 32-year-old skater needs one more medal to become the most decorated short track skater. He and retired American Apolo Ohno are currently tied with eight.
Maame (MAH-may) Biney (BYE-nee) is the first black female skater to make a U.S. short track Olympic team. The 17-year-old was born in Ghana and moved to Virginia with her father as a 6-year-old. She started skating soon after. Her explosive speed off the starting line and giggly personality could make her a star at the games even if she doesn’t medal.
The Americans’ best hope for a medal is in the men’s 5,000-meter relay. They’re ranked third in the world behind No. 1 Canada and South Korea. Three-time Olympian J.R. Celski has a shot in the 1,500. Olympic rookie Biney has an outside chance in the women’s 500.
On the men’s side,South Korea, China and Canada have strong medal contenders in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500. Sjinkee Knegt is the rare Dutch short tracker; most of his countrymen are known for their success in long track. Sandor Shaolin Liu of Hungary is a contender in the 500 and 1,500. Born to a Chinese father and Hungarian mother, he trained in China for a year and skated for Hungary in the 2014 Games. In the women’s events, the host country – including Choi Min-jeong and Shim Suk-hee – and veteran Marianne St-Gelais of Canada are medal threats.
The South Korean women will battle China for gold in the 3,000 relay. In the men’s 5,000 relay, Canada is a favorite for gold ahead of South Korea.
Deanna Lockett from sun-splashed Brisbane, Australia, will try to win a rare Winter Olympic medal for Down Under. In the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Steven Bradbury won the 1,000 after all four of his rivals crashed in the final turn. A shocked Bradbury threw up his arms in disbelief at winning Australia’s first winter gold medal. Lockett earned bronze in the 1,500 at a World Cup meet in Hungary last fall.