South Korea may be geographically small compared to its neighbours China and Japan, with a significantly shorter history of competitive sports than, say, Europe or North America, but it’s a powerhouse in certain Olympic events. The country is known for being unstoppable in archery, a force to be reckoned with in fencing and the originator of the internationally popular martial art taekwondo. Then there’s short-track speedskating, for which South Korea has been the top medal-winner since the event made its official debut at the 1992 games in Albertville, France. It missed out just once in 2002, coming second to its long-time rival China. Short-track speedskating is a sport in which athletes skate around an oval ice track, measuring 111.12 metres (364.54ft), completing between 4.5 to 45 laps, depending on the events, which range from the 500m to the 5,000m team relay. ‘China is stealing medals’: South Korean presidential hopefuls on Olympics storm South Korea’s national athletics association has focused on the sport since the 1980s as its main medal-gathering event during the Winter Olympics. It has developed one of the world’s toughest training regimes that starts when athletes are in junior school. This year in Beijing , South Korea came out on top again, winning five medals in the sport. Yet European countries are rapidly gaining momentum. China, as expected, finished second with four medals, tying with the Netherlands. Italy also won four medals but had one less gold medal, while Hungary gained a higher ranking than at previous Olympics, coming sixth with three medals. At one time South Korean skaters were known for taking all three positions on the podium in events such as the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships. Such dominance is rare now. As the short-track team touched down at Incheon International Airport last Thursday to a hero’s welcome from fans and the media, there were those who pondered what more could’ve been accomplished if it hadn’t been for the numerous conflicts and controversies that have beset the teams and the Korea Skating Union (KSU) since the early 2000s. The big news for South Koreans at this year’s Winter Olympics was the absence of short-track speed skater Shim Suk-hee, twice Olympic champion. After Choi Min-jung, who won a gold and two silver medals in Beijing, Shim is widely considered the second-fastest skater on the women’s team. The sport star was excluded from the national team at this year’s Olympics after a series of leaked text messages emerged that she sent to her coach belittling fellow teammates – especially Choi. In December, a KSU committee decided the messages “marred the dignity of athletes”, and suspended Shim for two months, forcing her to sit out the Beijing games. Hanbok at Winter Olympics opening ceremony sparks uproar in South Korea Her suspension ended just as the national team returned to South Korea, but the situation remains awkward not least because in her messages she had expressed the desire to see Choi lose in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics . Cho Jae-beom, a former national coach who was sentenced to more than 10 years for sexually assaulting Shim, leaked the private messages between Shim and one of her coaches who suggested Shim could create another “Bradbury” situation, referring to Australian skater Steven Bradbury who won gold in 2002 after his opponents collided and fell into a heap. To make matters worse, the skaters are caught up in a deep-rooted conflict that has to do with cliques in the country’s short-track speedskating world. There are two major cliques in the national team: one that comprises skaters from Korea National Sports University (KNSU), the country’s top college for producing Olympic champions, and one that includes non-KNSU skaters. The Shim-Choi feud is not the first of its kind in speed skating. Ahn Hyun-soo and Lee Ho-suk who were long-time teammates – even winning gold together at the 2006 Torino Olympics – were seen scuffling for first place in international events. Ahn was disqualified from one event for pushing Lee and making him fall. Skaters from other countries have shown surprise when witnessing such intense rivalry among the South Korean teammates. Skaters from KNSU who trained together became a pre-eminent force and made our country a powerhouse on the world stage Lee Ki-kwang, sports science professor Ahn, who is from KNSU, is said to be partially responsible for creating the cliques in the short track world. When he was a junior prospect in 2002 with no record of competing in senior events, he was given special privilege to represent the country at that year’s Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. He was included in the national team in place of higher-ranked, experienced athletes, by the national men’s coach at the time, Jeon Myeong-gyu, who became a professor at KNSU. Since then, Jeon has been accused of showing favouritism to athletes and coaches from the school in international competitions. When one of Jeon’s pupils, Kim Ki-hoon, was announced as a new coach for the national team in 2005, seven male skaters boycotted the hire claiming that only Ahn, who graduated from KNSU, was given extra attention. A year later, Ahn’s father was caught in a fist fight with the vice-president of the Korea Skating Union after rumours spread about non-KNSU skaters “stopping Ahn from winning at all costs.” Can South Korea’s Olympic squad insulate itself from Tokyo-Seoul friction? After injuries and escalating tensions, Ahn eventually naturalised to Russia and skated for the Russian national team in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, winning three golds for Russia and marking his place as one of the most decorated Winter Olympic athletes of all-time. Jin Sun-yu, who alongside Ahn won three gold medals at the Torino Olympics in 2006, retired after just one Olympic run citing injury problems. Her recent revelations on a television programme in January have shone a spotlight on the seriousness of the cliques in her sport. She addressed rumours about skaters who graduated from KNSU saying it was: “OK to lose to Chinese skaters, but not to Jin Sun-yu.” “I was on different floors with my teammates [in our dormitory] because I was the only one who wasn’t from KNSU,” Jin said on the sports talk show. “We only trained together for the team relay event.” As well as eating separately, Jin felt she had to train with the men’s team because of her non-affiliation with KNSU and the rest of the women’s team. “I don’t think factions exist to that extent today,” she added. Lee Ki-kwang, a sports science professor at Kookmin University, thinks factions can be a good thing, pointing to them as one of the reasons for South Korea’s rise to the top of short-track speedskating. “Just as judo has Yong In University and taekwondo has Kyung Hee University, skaters from KNSU who trained together became a pre-eminent force and made our country a powerhouse on the world stage,” Lee said. He says sports like archery and speed skating, which produce winners by record or time, are not troubled by the existence of cliques. Only sports such as short-track, where winners are decided by who crosses the finish line first, are affected because coaches have greater control over who they choose for their teams and can create tactics that may benefit one skater over another. “If our country had a large pool of competitive short-track speed skaters, cliques would not be as significant. But our country’s pool is small and we are solely focused on producing medals. So, this type of environment has forced cliques to become important to development and success,” Lee said. Lee compares cliques in South Korean sports to that of chaebols – the family-controlled conglomerates that dominate South Korean industry – to which the government gave special privileges and attention to spur economic growth. Just as South Korea has produced Samsung, so the Korea Skating Union and KNSU have produced Ahn Hyun-soo, bestowing on him the title ‘King of Short-track.’ “In many ways, I see sports as a mirror of our society and economy,” Lee said.