Rival skaters from Japan and South Korea embrace spirit of ‘Peace Olympics’
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Rival skaters from Japan and South Korea embrace spirit of ‘Peace Olympics’

FRIENDSHIP and reconciliation have been among the enduring themes of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang – and no one has embraced this more than rival skaters from Japan and South Korea.

The image of Japan’s Nao Kodaira and South Korea’s Lee Sang-hwa embracing after Kodaira had beaten the hometown favourite to the gold medal in the 500-metre race even drew praise from the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

World record holder Lee, the Olympic champion in 2010 and 2014, was beaten by 0.39 seconds as Kodaira set a new Olympic record to win in a time of 36.94 seconds.

Kodaira hugged and comforted her rival, prompting Abe to tell her in a phone call: “The sight of two of you embracing each other after the race and congratulating each other was really wonderful.”

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Relations between Japan and South Korea remain strained due to a complicated past, in which Japan colonised South Korea from 1910 to 1945.

But if these Games – called “the Peace Olympics” by South Korean President Moon Jae-in due to a thaw in relations between South and North Korea – are teaching us anything, it is that historical tensions can be put aside where sport is involved.

According to Reuters, one Japanese viewer wrote: “The scene of the two embracing is something all humanity has been waiting for.”

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Gold medalist Nao Kodaira of Japan (middle), silver medalist Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea (left) and bronze medalist Karolina Erbanova of the Czech Republic during the medal ceremony. Source: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

In South Korea, newspaper headlines such as ‘A borderless friendship’ and ‘Lee’s tears and Kodaira’s consolation – the rivals’ beautiful finale’ appeared.

After the race, 31-year-old Kodaira, who won her first Olympic gold, said: “I respect her very much as a human being and a skater. She’s my friend.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Lee, a self-confessed fan of Japanese food, said: “One time we were at the World Cup and waiting for the bus and were taking a picture together.

“Nao said: ‘Next Olympics you can win and I’ll take second place’. I told her: ‘No, you can take first place and I’ll take second place’. We’ve shared a lot of good memories together.”

Norway lead the medal table, with 11 golds, while – despite Kodaira’s success against Lee – South Korea lead Japan by three gold medals to two in the race to be the best in Asia.