SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Speed skater Lee Sang-hwa cut a lonely figure on Friday as the Olympic 500 meters champion reflected on South Korea’s struggles at the Sochi Winter Games.
The top speed skating nation at the 2010 Vancouver Games with three gold and two silver medals, South Korea have endured a Games to forget on the ice so far in Russia with Lee’s victory on Monday the Asian nation’s only medal in the sport in Sochi.
Four years ago, ‘Empress Lee’ was joined by all the Korean medalists to address the media.
On Friday she sat alone.
“In Vancouver, I was with my fellows skaters seated side by side in the news conference, but here I‘m alone today and that makes me feel sorry,” Lee told reporters in Sochi.
While success for world record holder Lee was pretty much taken for granted back home, there had been high hopes Mo Tae-bum would repeat his gold-silver Vancouver success in the 500 and 1,000m.
But his challenge fizzled at the Adler Arena and he finished fourth in his title defense and a dismal 12th over the longer distance.
The 24-year-old said afterwards he was tired and wanted to “forget about this Olympics as soon as possible”.
Mo’s failure had left a somber mood in the Korean speed skating camp, Lee said.
“We were all watching Tae-bum’s race and become tearful at the end with the disappointment,” she added.
While Mo said he would live to fight in another Winter Games, fellow 1,000m skater Lee Kyou-hyuk opted for retirement after finishing Wednesday’s race in a disappointing 21st place.
“I want a calm and quiet life, no fighting, no wars. But still, I will be training for myself,” said the 35-year-old, a four-times world sprint champion.
”This morning when I was having a shower, I looked in the mirror and discovered that my body is getting older.
“It is my last competition because I don’t have the self-confidence any more to get good results in racing.”
Men’s 10,000m champion Lee Seung-hoon cited nerves for his lowly 12th place finish in the 5,000m, an event he won silver in four years ago, while Lee Bo-ra finished last in the women’s 1,000m after tripping herself up.
Noh Seon-yeong finished 25th in the 3,000m, though her mind may have been elsewhere given the recent news that her brother, former short track world champion Noh Jin-kyu, was recently diagnosed with cancer.
Lee Sang-hwa, who also finished 12th in the 1,000m, said the team would be more motivated for the 2018 Games, when the Olympics come to Pyeongchang.
“The next Olympics will be held in our country and I believe a bigger celebration is waiting for them if they grab the medals in the Korean Olympics,” she added.
The country’s short track team have fared no better, with Park Seung-hi’s bronze in the women’s 500m lifting the gloom only slightly after Sin Da-woon and Lee Han-bin crashed into each other in the semi-finals of the men’s 1,500m.
Another collision, this time with the United States in the 5,000m relay team, sent the Koreans crashing out of the semi-finals, while Park Se-yeong tripped on the final corner of the 1,500m B final.
Rubbing salt into the wounds, the Koreans had to watch their former team mate Viktor Ahn pick up a bronze medal in the men’s 1,500m for adopted country Russia.
The skater, who won three Olympic gold medals for South Korea at the Turin Games, took Russian citizenship after being overlooked for the Vancouver Games.
That decision, his subsequent bronze and South Korea’s failures in Sochi prompted President Park Geun-hye to demand answers for Ahn’s switch.
“What is the reason?” she asked in quotes carried by Yonhap News Agency on Thursday. “We have to look back on whether it is because of irregularities lying in the sports world, such as factionalism, favoritism and judging corruption.”
If the skating teams’ flops have put more pressure on Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yuna she is hiding it well.
Speed skater Lee said she has been exchanging messages with ‘Queen Yuna’ and added that the 23-year-old was not burdened by the expectation she will retain the Olympic title.
“We just talked to each other with text messages and I told her enjoy the journey throughout the competition,” Lee said.
“It seems that Yuna is not at all worried or stressed out before the competition. She is obviously better than me in controlling her own mind.”
Writing by Patrick Johnston; Editing by Peter Rutherford