On February 18, Nao Kodaira won the gold medal in the women’s 500-meter speed skating event at the PyeongChang Olympics. Of course, Kodaira’s new Olympic record and magnificently powerful skating were amazing, but even more stunning was her behavior after the race.
Of all the athletes competing, it was Kodaira, whose time was around the 36-second mark, who took the time to hug the local favorite, South Korean skater Lee Sang-hwa, who cried as she came in second, thereby dashing her hopes of a third straight Olympic win.
Kodaira told Lee Sang-hwa, “I respect you.” A huge cheer rose from the stands as the two skated a lap around the rink, arms around each-other’s shoulders and each holding their own national flags.
It was the most memorable scene of the Olympics, precisely because it was between two athletes who had persevered through many long, arduous battles in their quest to be the best in the world.
The Olympic values promoted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are of “Excellence, Friendship and Respect.” The sight of these two athletes, together, superbly symbolized all three.
The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo (The Central Times) reported that “they held on to each other as though they had captured gold and silver medals for the same team.”
Sports has a unique ability to help people connect. It is borne of facing the fairness of any sport, the shield of impartiality, and the solemnity of the competition. In contrast, empathy will not swell from bending the rules due to political ideology or forcibly creating a joint team, which one could say are far removed from the values of Olympic competition.
Strained relations continue between Japan and South Korea over things like the history issue. Even so, we are inseparable as geographic neighbors, and sometimes, in the excitement of sports, we can be inspired to forget the difficult feelings on both sides.
We recall the 2011 Asian Football Cup. In the semi-finals of the soccer match, when Japan beat South Korea in the penalty shootout, one player, Yasuhito Endo, left the circle of rejoicing Japanese players to comfort the South Korean star player, Park Ji-sung, with a hug.
Endo and Park were former J-League colleagues from their time in Kyoto, and this happened to be the last match of Park’s representative career. In the world of sports, Japan and South Korea are fierce competitors, battling it out ruthlessly while at the same time having a very close relationship.
In PyeongChang, Kodaira and Lee Sang-hwa sat side by side at the press conference for medalists, where the air was filled with words of friendship and respect spoken toward each other. The scene of these two top athletes smiling and grasping each other’s hands under the table was nothing short of heartwarming. Kodaira is 31, and Lee Sang-hwa is 28. We wonder, is it too much to ask that the next chapter in this drama be played out at the next winter Olympics, in Beijing?
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)