Olympic speed skating champion Lee Sang-hwa loses nat’l team eligibility

January 12, 2016
Lee Sang-hwa

Lee Sang-hwa

SEOUL (Yonhap) — Olympic speed skating champion Lee Sang-hwa, who recently lost her national team eligibility after skipping a national competition, pleaded for a reprieve to no avail on Tuesday.

Lee, the two-time reigning Olympic gold medalist in the 500 meters, leads all female skaters in distance in the ongoing 2015-2016 International Skating Union (ISU) Speed Skating World Cup. She has 680 points on four victories and two runner-up finishes. She has competed in all four World Cup stops so far.

The Korea Skating Union (KSU) recently ruled Lee ineligible for the fifth World Cup stop in Stavanger, Norway, from Jan. 29-31, after she skipped last month’s national sprint championship. Lee also won’t be able to compete at the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships in Seoul from Feb. 27-28.

Up until last season, those who made the national team prior to the World Cup season could skate the entire season, regardless of their participation in the national event. The KSU tweaked the rule last September to force national team members to skate in domestic competitions to retain their eligibility.

Lee, the world record holder in 500 m at 36.36 seconds, asked the KSU to reconsider its decision and allow her to return to the World Cup stage, saying she was unaware of the rule change.

“I’d been training without a club, and I didn’t know about the change,” she said at a press conference where she formally joined a new skating club operated by the state sports lottery operator Sports Toto. “I admit it was my mistake not to find out about it beforehand, but I’d still love to skate at the World Cup.”

Lee said even if she’d known about the change, she likely would have sat out the national sprint championship.

“I needed to take some time off after four World Cups to prevent injuries,” said Lee, who has a history of knee issues. “The schedule was too tight for me to properly get ready.”

Lee returned home on Dec. 15, and the national sprint championship started a week later.

Lee is hoping to use the fifth World Cup race to get ready for the World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships from Feb. 11-14 in Kolomna, Russia. If the KSU doesn’t budge and forces her to miss the World Cup, Lee will have gone two full months without a competitive race before the Russian stop.

“Rules are rules, and I have to follow them,” Lee added. “Even if I can’t compete at the World Cup, I will concentrate on doing well in other events this season.”

Despite Lee’s public appeal, the KSU maintained that it won’t provide Lee with a special exemption.

“Rules must apply equally to all athletes,” the KSU said. “It’s unfortunate she won’t be able to compete in the fifth World Cup.”

As for her knee, Lee said, “Honestly, it’s not great, but it’s not too bad, either. Athletes must always do their best at every competition. Everyone is dealing with some sort of pain.”