GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Noh Seon-Yeong’s tears have mobilized the hosts of the PyeongChang Olympics, marring the Games for a nation that prides itself on sportsmanship and civility.
Noh, a long-track speedskater, cried in the infield of the Gangneung Oval on Monday night after being humiliated by her teammates in the quarterfinals of the team pursuit. Kim Bo-Reum and Park Ji Woo walked by their distraught teammate, unmoved, after abandoning her in an event that is defined by cooperation. Only one person on the Korean team comforted her: Coach Bob de Jong, a four-time Olympic medalist for the Netherlands.
Koreans were so angered by the display that a petition was started on President Moon Jae-in’s website asking that Kim and Park be banned from the national team because “it is a clear national disgrace that such people with a personality problem are representing a country in the Olympics.” By Wednesday, that petition had 400,000 signatures.
In the pursuit, teams of three skaters race for time. Cooperation is permitted; skaters can push their teammates, literally, and strategy often calls for a faster skater to be positioned behind a slower one to do just that. Most teams trade off the lead spot, but all stay in the pack.
But instead of helping Noh or even skating at a pace that would keep her with the pack, Kim and Park skated away from their slower teammate in their quarterfinal heat Monday night. Noh finished alone, four seconds later, exposed as the weakest link in a team that could have — and, according to the sports’ long-standing unwritten rules, should have — shielded her.
Kim and Park gained nothing by finishing earlier. The clock runs until all three skaters cross the line. Shortly after Noh did, with none of her teammates within reach, she broke down in tears.
Kim, 25, told reporters the group had trained hard for these Olympics and “our third racer was far behind us, and the gap became even wider as we reached the finish line,” according to the Korea Times. These comments were not received well by South Koreans, who have little tolerance for criticizing colleagues in public.
The uproar grew so great that Kim addressed the problem in a last-minute news conference Tuesday night in which she apologized for “hurting the feelings of so many people.” Park didn’t appear. Neither did Noh, who was sick with the flu, according to the Korea Times.
Amid all the chaos, the Korean pursuit team still had its consolation race scheduled Wednesday night. Speculation swirled, but all three showed up and skated in silence, together in a pack, if not in spirit, losing in a race that determined seventh and eighth place.
South Koreans understood how much competing in the PyeongChang Games meant to Noh. Her brother, Noh Jin-Kyu, was the country’s top medal hope in short-track speedskating before the Sochi Games, but bone cancer rendered him unable to compete. He died two years later, at 23.
Since then, Noh made her intentions clear: She wanted to compete in PyeongChang and dedicate her performance to him. In the months leading up to these Games, Noh thought she had secured the spot she needed. She would compete in team pursuit. Then, three weeks before Opening Ceremonies, the Korean Skating Union informed Noh she could not compete. The KSU had miscommunicated with the International Skating Union about a rule that required skaters in the team pursuit to qualify for at least one individual event. Unaware of the requirement, she had not met it.
In the aftermath of that decision, Noh lashed out against the KSU. She had told Korean reporters she thought the KSU had pushed her brother too hard in search of gold. So when she was banned, according to reports, she declared she was no longer proud to represent her country.
Then the International Olympic Committee disallowed two Russian speedskaters. Noh accepted a berth offered by the IOC and an apology offered by the president of the KSU. She told Chosun Media, among others, that she “wanted to end her national team career without regret.” Her fourth Olympics would be her last.
The incident probably will not harm Noh’s legacy, but it has damaged her teammates’. Kim lost sponsorship deals and had to make her social media posts private. Park is 19, and her reputation in this speedskating-crazed country will never be the same.
When the announcer called the Koreans’ names before their race Wednesday night, a few people booed Kim and Park. Most opted for polite cheers. When Noh was announced, the whole crowd roared.
The three Koreans, skating this time in a pack, fell behind early and slipped further back late. They crossed the finish line together, still silent and somber.
When reporters clamored for them afterward — one even grabbed Park’s arm — none of them said a word. Instead, they walked toward the locker room, skates in hand, each of them separated by a few yards but forever linked by what happened when two of them turned their backs on the third.
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