A silver medallist in the women’s speed skating 1,000m earlier at PyeongChang 2018, Japan’s Nao Kodaira went one better in the 500m at the Gangneung Oval on Sunday 18 February, outpacing two-time defending Olympic champion and world record holder Lee Sang-hwa of the Republic of Korea (ROK) to claim the gold. Karolina Erbanova of the Czech Republic took the bronze.
The 2017 world champion in the distance, Kodaira eclipsed Lee’s Olympic record to top the podium, stopping the clock in 36.94 seconds to back up her supreme World Cup form in the event, which has seen her win 15 consecutive 500m races since 2016. Her victory made her the first female Japanese speed skater to land an Olympic individual speed skating title and only the third woman to win the 500m Olympic title as the current world champion, after Lee in 2014 and Canada’s Catriona Le May Doan in 2002.
The 31-year-old Kodaira posted her winning time in the 14th of the 16 pairs, with Erbanova alongside her. Roared on by the home crowd and bidding to join the USA’s Bonnie Blair as a three-time Olympic champion in the event, Lee was next on the ice. Though she started more quickly than Kodaira, the ROK skater could not maintain her momentum on the back straight and finished 0.39 seconds behind, to the disappointment of the home fans.
With the gold secured, the new Olympic champion spoke to Lee after the race, with the two skaters raising their national flags together. “Sports can bring the world together as one. It’s simple,” said Kodaira afterwards. “She was under big pressure. She fought well. I told her, ‘I respect you still and a lot’.”
“It doesn’t matter, I still have two gold medals and I still have the world record,” said Lee, who was a little tearful after her lap. “I was between nervous and excited before racing and when I finished everything, I was really happy.
“It was the first time my mother has seen me competing at the Olympics. I think she cried too. My goal was to make 36.8 seconds but that didn’t happen. It’s over now, but I’ve still achieved everything I could as a skater.”
“It’s amazing. I’ve been fourth in the World Cup so many times, and now I’ve done it at just the right time,” said a delighted Erbanova. “It brings a really long chapter in my career to an end. The timing is just amazing.”