GANGNEUNG, South Korea – They stood on the platform next to each other, each a medal winner, one for the host country of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the other for – and let’s get this straight right now – Russia, despite what his uniform said. What played out Saturday night at Gangneung Ice Arena was, by name, the 1,500-meter men’s short-track speedskating final. But step back a bit and see the reality: These games’ two primary themes were there, skating, side-by-side.
When you come here, try the bibimbap and the kimchi. Ride in a Hyundai and drink some soju. (Note: Haven’t tried it yet. Will get back to you.) And please, if you’re here for the Olympics, whatever you do, show up for some short-track speedskating.
This is college football in the Deep South, hockey in Toronto, soccer in Brazil. This is where, on the first full day of competition, Vice President Mike Pence sat next to Korean President Moon Jae-in, front and center. It was supposed to be the place to be. Where else to go?
But even in the delirious arena that’s home to South Korea’s signature sport, you have to allow for the possibility that factors other than race strategy and tactics could overwhelm everything else.
The winner of the men’s 1,500 meters was Lim Hyo-jun, a 21-year-old native of Daegu, South Korea, who set an Olympic record and won the host country’s first medal of its own games – gold, at that. “I dreamed of this for life,” Lim said. When he received his stuffed animal memento during Saturday night’s brief, anthem-less presentation – the actual medal ceremony, complete with the hardware, will come later – the competitor to his left was Semen Elistratov, a 27-year-old native of Ufa, Russia.
Elistratov didn’t wear his home nation’s traditional red but instead white and blue – almost Finland-ish. That’s the uniform for the Olympic Athletes from Russia – the semantic creation of the International Olympic Committee, which banned the Russian Olympic Committee for what it determined was state-sponsored doping at the previous Winter Olympics, held on Russian soil. Elistratov will be awarded bronze, the first medal for what the IOC will call “OAR,” but what the rest of the world should absolutely call “Russia.”
We have examined Russia’s case from a bureaucratic perspective, from a good-vs.-evil perspective. Saturday night, we got, from Elistratov, the personal perspective.
“Before I went to the Olympics they told me, ‘You should make a choice whether you are going to these Olympic Games or not,’” Elistratov said through an interpreter. “This was not an easy decision at all. That’s why my bronze Olympic medal, it’s almost like a platinum medal.”
Elistratov was well aware that the Russian champion Viktor Ahn, who won three gold medals and a bronze in Sochi, isn’t here, and his presence could have changed the race Saturday night, could have changed any of the rest of the short-track program. But Ahn was one of the Russian athletes whose appeal to compete in Pyeongchang was denied at the last minute by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That decision will shape this competition, just as it will the competition at so many other venues.
But before that, oddly enough, Ahn helped shape Lim, who was inspired to excel in this sport by watching the Russian more than a decade ago.
“I have great respect,” Lim said through a translator. “It was really regretful (about the ban). It would be an honor for me to compete and race alongside Viktor Ahn.”
Such an interesting take – a hero, banned for doping, but still a hero to the new champ. Lim, of course, was showered with an ovation when he took to the platform to be announced as the winner. But Elistratov heard only cheers as well. Indeed, he might not be able to wear a Russian uniform, and the Russian flag won’t fly at any medal ceremony. But when he stepped up to be recognized, fans in the stands enthusiastically – defiantly? – waved a Russian flag.
“I’m very grateful to the Russian fans who managed to come here to these Olympic Games to support us, and who have managed to support our team,” Elistratov said, “because right now is, indeed, a difficult situation we’re having,”
But it wasn’t just that a South Korean and a Russian stood side-by-side on a podium, or that they each addressed the Russians’ ban. Because these Olympics are tinged with a unique element – the dance between the host country and its traditionally hostile neighbor to the north – the first night of South Korea’s national sport produced some fascinating sideshows. When the competition opened on the short track, a raft of North Korean cheerleaders – a group 100 strong – stood in the stands and swayed and sang and danced.
This wasn’t the kind of dancing from, say, the Rio Olympics two summers ago, all sensuality and spice. By comparison, this was programmed, almost militaristic. But it clearly meant something, too. The cheerleaders, who are included as part of the North Korean delegation that is considered historic, waved the same blue-and-white Korean unification flags that athletes from both countries walked under in Friday’s opening ceremony. When they sang and swayed, the South Korean fans responded enthusiastically.
Who knows what will happen over the rest of these games? But the relationship between these two nations, separated for 70 years but still sharing one peninsula, and the reactions of their people to each other will be fascinating to watch.
Together, they created the environment that, if the South Koreans’ success builds over the course of the Games, will help define the Olympics for the host country. Lim’s gold was the 22nd for Korea in short-track racing. The next-closest competitor is China, with nine. So the frenzy when Lim and top-ranked Hwang Daeheon skated near the front in the final was predictable, as was the gasp when Hwang skidded out of the race, an unforced error that sent him crashing into the padded walls.
“Actually, during the World Cups here,” American John-Henry Krueger said, “the crowd is this big anyway.”
But there was, too, the interesting twist that earlier, during elimination heats, the entire crowd had cheered on 25-year-old Choe Un Song – the only North Korean in the race. In sports, if not in life, Korean is Korean, no matter north or south.
These Olympics have really just begun. But on the first full night of competition, we had it all: a host-nation gold medal winner who revered the banned Russian who couldn’t compete. A Russian competing in a disconcerting uniform emotionally dealing with his nation’s fate. And a crowd filled with citizens of both Koreas, smiling and waving at each other. We don’t know how all this will play out, but what fun it will be to watch.