Speed skaters confront “funny surface” in Sochi

February 4, 2014
Lee Sang-hwa will have to get used to Sochi's "Funny ice" quickly. (Yonhap)

Lee Sang-hwa will have to get used to Sochi’s “Funny ice” quickly. (Yonhap)

(Yonhap) Ahead of the Winter Olympics here in the Russian town of Sochi, South Korean speed skaters face an unexpected challenge: a “funny” ice surface.

South Korea boasts three reigning Olympic speed skating champions: Lee Sang-hwa in the women’s 500 meters, Mo Tae-bum in the men’s 500m and Lee Seung-hoon in the men’s 10,000m.

The trio and the rest of the team had their first practice at Adler Arena Skating Center, the site of the upcoming Olympic competition, on Monday in Russia. The Olympics’ opening ceremony is set for Friday and speed skating will begin on Saturday with the men’s 5,000m.

The three champions had competed at the World Single Distance Speed Skating Championships at the same rink last March, and Lee Sang-hwa and Mo won the 500m races in the women’s and the men’s competitions, while Lee Seung-hoon was a member of the silver medal-winning team in the team pursuit event.

Last month, the three had said the soft and slow ice in Sochi had felt quite similar to the Richmond Olympic Oval from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the site of their Olympic victories. All three said they were looking forward to competing again on the familiar surface.

Yet on the first day of practice here, skaters and their coach had mixed reactions to Adler’s ice.

Kevin Crockett, the coach, called the surface “funny,” saying it felt different than it did at last year’s world championships.

Lee Sang-hwa said the ice felt hard, but Lee Kyou-hyuk, competing in his sixth Olympics, said it felt soft to him.

The ice conditions could often make a huge difference for skaters. Lee Sang-hwa set her first world record in the 500m in Calgary last January and broke it again in the same Canadian city in November. Then she went on to break it twice more, on back to back days later in November, in Salt Lake City. Her current world mark stands at 36.36 seconds.

In winning the 500m world title in Sochi last year, Lee finished her first race in 37.69 seconds and improved it by 0.04 second in her next race.

Surfaces in North America are generally considered faster than European ones, leading to more record-breaking performances. Crockett has previously said he doesn’t expect records to fall in Sochi this month because of the ice conditions.

Hard or soft, skaters all have a job to do, Lee Sang-hwa insisted.

“It’s only one day, but I liked the surface better last year,” she said. “Maybe I am being extra sensitive because it’s the Olympics, but I have to make adjustments to the surface, and I will try not to worry too much.”