GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Thousands of South Koreans are calling for two speedskaters to be expelled from the Olympics after they left their slower teammate behind in a race defined by teamwork and walked away as she quietly sobbed at the stadium in one of the most bizarre moments of this year’s Winter Games.
As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 570,000 signatures had been gathered on an online petition to South Korea’s presidential office calling for skaters Kim Bo-Reum and Park Ji Woo to be expelled from the Olympics.
During the women’s team pursuit quarterfinals on Monday, Kim and Park skated ahead as teammate Noh Seon-yeong fell behind the pack. Noh finished the race nearly four full seconds after her teammates did. Cameras showed Kim and Park walking away after the race as Noh cried in the infield of the Gangneung Oval. She was comforted only by her Dutch coach, Bob de Jong.
Some South Koreans believe Kim and Park were trying to humiliate Noh because there was nothing to be gained by crossing first.
“It’s clearly a disgrace to our national image that these individuals of bad character are representing this country at the Olympics,” the petition says.
The petition also calls for an investigation into what it describes as “various corruption and irregularities” at the Korea Skating Union, the national skating body. The union has come under criticism for many years for alleged factionalism and nepotism in selecting athletes to compete for the Olympics.
There was no immediate comment by the union.
In team pursuit, the finishing time is set by the third and last skater crossing the line. Normally, the first rider sets the pace and takes the air pressure head on while the other two follow in the draft. Skaters are also allowed to cooperate, including pushing their slower teammates from behind.
But in their quarterfinal heat, it seemed Kim and Park weren’t putting much effort into helping Noh keep pace and stay in the pack.
Kim further triggered public anger after the games with comments many saw as putting the blame on Noh.
“It was regretful, since it’s the time of the last skater that counts. If our last skater had come in a bit earlier we might have made the semifinals. But it’s finished,” Kim said after the race.”Park Ji Woo was supposed to go out with speed, and Noh Seon-Yeong would do minimal. But after we got separated, we couldn’t really communicate. That was probably the reason.”
As the public anger grew, Kim appeared in a news conference with her coach on Tuesday and tearfully offered her “sincere apology” and said she didn’t realize Noh was that far off until it was too late.
Both Kim and Park are from the Korea National Sports University, whose athletes and alumni have been at the center of factional disputes in the country’s super-competitive speedskating scene.
Skaters from other schools have previously complained that athletes with ties to the university are favored in domestic competitions to pick athletes for the Olympics and other international events. That’s believed to be particularly true in short-track speedskating where multiple athletes can work together — jostling for position, blocking and ceding — to improve the chance that a certain athlete wins.
Ahead of the Olympics, Noh reportedly complained that she wasn’t getting much time to train with Kim and Park, who were practicing separately at the university.
For Noh, it was her second tearful Olympics in a row.
Four years ago, she was bent on competing with her brother Jin-kyu at the 2014 Sochi Games. But the talented short-tracker failed to make it there after he was diagnosed with bone cancer. He died two years later.
Her preparations for the Pyeongchang Games were equally troubled.
She was supposed to be on the pursuit team, but she was told barely two weeks before the games started that she could not compete since she had not qualified for an individual event. The Korea Skating Union said an administrative error was to blame. After a withdrawal from other athletes, though, a spot opened up and she took it.
On Wednesday night, Noh skated with Kim and Park again in a two-team race to determine seventh place. As the stadium’s announcer called out their names, the crowd quietly acknowledged Kim and Park, but saved a thunderous cheer for Noh.
The Koreans lost to Poland and finished eighth.
Associated Press writer Raf Casert contributed to this story.