S. Korea to host sprint speed skating worlds without two best skaters

February 23, 2016
Speed skaters Mo Tae-bum, left, and Lee Sang-hwa are among the Korean athletes favored to win medals at the Sochi Winter Olympics. (Yonhap)

Top speed skaters Mo Tae-bum, left, and Lee Sang-hwa won’t be representing S. Korea at home this weekend.

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL (Yonhap) — South Korea will be without its two Olympic champions when it hosts speed skating’s premier sprint competition this weekend.

The International Skating Union (ISU) World Sprint Speed Skating Championships will be held Saturday and Sunday at Taereung International Skating Rink inside the National Training Center in Seoul.

Skaters will each enter two 500 m races and two 1,000 m races across those two days. Their times will be converted to points using the samalog system, in which the points for the 500 m are equal to the race time in seconds, and the points for the 1,000 m are the time in seconds divided by two. The skater with the lowest total points is the winner.

Brittany Bowe of the United States is the defending champion in the women’s competition. Pavel Kulizhnikov of Russia won the men’s title last year.

The host country will be missing two Olympic 500 m gold medalists: Lee Sang-hwa in the women’s race and Mo Tae-bum on the men’s side.

Lee, the world record holder in the women’s 500 m and two-time Olympic gold medalist in that distance, is ineligible this weekend. She lost her national team status for the sprint championships after skipping the South Korean sprint competition in December.

It was due to a rule change instituted last fall. Lee asked the Korea Skating Union (KSU) for a reprieve, saying she’d been unaware of the modification, but the KSU rejected her plea.

Lee won her lone sprint title in 2010 before adding a bronze in 2013. Earlier this month she claimed her third career title in the 500 m at the World Single Distances Championships in Russia.

In the women’s competition, Park Seung-hi, the former Olympic short track champion who converted to speed skating in October 2014, will take to the ice along with Kim Min-sun, the reigning Youth Winter Olympic champ in the 500 m, and Kim Hyun-yung, the former world junior champion in the same distance.

On the men’s side, Mo Tae-bum, the 2010 Olympic champion in the 500 m, pulled out Tuesday with a back injury. The KSU said Mo had been fine until developing sudden back pains this week. It represents another low for Mo, who has fallen on hard times since his first Olympic gold six years ago.

Mo won a silver at this event in 2011 and a bronze in 2012.

Without Mo, South Korea will be represented by Kim Tae-yun, who ranked sixth in the 500 m at this year’s world single distances championships, and Kim Jin-su, who finished 13th in the 1,000 m at the same event.

At the pre-race press conference held at the National Training Center Wednesday with all five South Korean skaters present, national team coach Kwon Sun-cheon laid out realistic goals for his charge.

“I don’t think these skaters can be called great just yet; they’re all just starting out,” Kwon said. “But I think they will be much better next year and beyond. We will certainly have the next Mo Tae-bums and Lee Sang-hwas. I honestly don’t think we will win a medal this week, but my job is to help them become more confident for the Asian Winter Games next year and the Winter Olympics in 2018.”

Among men, Kulizhnikov is favored to repeat. Early in February, he became the first man to capture both the 500 m and 1,000 m titles at the same world single distances championships.

Zhang Hong of China appears to be the front runner among female skaters. She is the ISU World Cup points leader in the 500 m this season and finished third at the single distances event earlier this month. She won the 2014 Olympic gold in the 1,000 m. In the sprint competition, she was third in 2012 and second in 2014.