There was no premeditated bullying behind a controversial speed skating race at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the sport ministry said Wednesday following its investigation into the case.
The incident happened during the quarterfinals of the women’s team pursuit at Gangneung Oval in Gangneung, some 230 kilometers east of Seoul, on Feb. 19. In this discipline, the team is timed when the last skater of the three crosses the finish line. But for South Korea, two skaters, Kim Bo-reum and Park Ji-woo, left their teammate, Noh Seon-yeong, far behind as they skated over the finish line.
Kim also came under fire for throwing Noh under the bus in her post-race interview, taking thinly veiled shots at Noh for falling behind while wearing a smirk.
It caused an uproar among the angry public, with hundreds of thousands signing an online petition at Cheong Wa Dae’s website to get Kim off the national team.
Even a tearful press conference by Kim and her coach, Baek Chul-gi, couldn’t assuage people’s wrath, prompting the sports ministry to launch a probe into the incident and operations at the Korea Skating Union (KSU) after the Olympics.
And after interviewing all three skaters involved, analyzing the trio’s previous races and gathering expert opinions, the ministry concluded that Kim and Park had no intention to leave Noh in the back and embarrass her on the Olympic ice.
According to the ministry, Kim and Park weren’t noticeably faster over their final laps than they had been in earlier laps, and it was merely a case of Noh running out of gas in the late stretches.
One expert told the ministry: “It’s difficult for a skater who loses steam late in a race to accelerate again. If the skaters find themselves separated later in the race, then it’s just better for each of them to do the best she can.”
The order in which Kim, Park and Noh skated in the last stretch also raised eyebrows, given how far behind Noh trailed the other two. Typically, the strongest skater will bring up the rear over the final stretch to push the other two, with the weakest of the team usually hidden in the middle. Skeptics believed Noh should have been in the middle of the pack so that she wouldn’t fall behind.
But the ministry said Noh had skated last in two of the seven previous international races the same trio had entered before PyeongChang 2018. And there were several other instances in other nations where the third skater fell well behind the rest of the team.
Rather than bullying, the ministry blamed the controversy on a lack of communication within the team.
Initially, Noh told the team she’d prefer to skate in the middle. But on the eve of the race, Baek suggested Noh take up the third spot, and told the three skaters to talk things over and make the decision.
But according to the ministry, the skaters didn’t have any discussion, and Baek only asked them about the order during the warmup for the race.
Noh wasn’t entirely confident in her own abilities but volunteered to skate third out of her sense of responsibility as the senior athlete on the team at 28, the ministry explained.
The ministry said Baek failed to make the important decision himself as coach and instead passed the buck to his athletes, and lied about the situation as the press conference when he said Noh had offered to skate in third place the night before the competition.
“We believe the athletes did the best they could under the circumstances,” the ministry stated, adding that it recommends the KSU take disciplinary action against Baek over his neglect of duties.