February 19, 2018 / 12:09 PM / a month ago

Speed skating: South Korea, Japan celebrate skaters' bonhomie

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - A photo of rival skaters from South Korea and Japan hugging each other after a tense race has touched many hearts in the two neighbours with a bitter history, with many including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe applauding their friendship.

Feb 18, 2018; Pyeongchang, South Korea; Nao Kodaira (JPN) and Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) celebrates after the women's speed skating 500m during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Gangneung Ice Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Japanese skater Nao Kodaira stormed to gold in the women’s 500 metre race on Sunday night, beating defending champion and hometown favourite Lee Sang-hwa.

But a picture of Kodaira hugging and comforting her rival, who was in tears holding a South Korean flag, has melted hearts in both nations. Bilateral relations remain strained due to the shared past in which Japan colonised South Korea from 1910-1945.

“The sight of two of you embracing each other after the race and congratulating each other was really wonderful,” Abe told her on Monday during a phone call to congratulate Kodaira on her first Olympic win.

Japanese viewers tweeted that the scene brought them to tears, while one wrote: “The scene of the two embracing is something all humanity has been waiting for.”

Newspaper headlines in Japan also lauded the gesture, saying “Embrace for Rival Lee” and commenting on their bond.

In South Korea, photos of the two were prominently carried in major newspapers with headlines such as “A borderless friendship” and “Lee’s tears and Kodaira’s consolation — The rivals’ beautiful finale.”

Thousands took to the Internet and social media to praise their gesture as a true friendship and sportsmanship.

Speed Skating - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Women's 500m competition finals - Gangneung Oval - Gangneung, South Korea - February 18, 2018 - Nao Kodaira of Japan and Lee Sang-Hwa of South Korea celebrate. REUTERS/Phil Noble/File photo

“I was sobbing while watching Kodaira and Lee strolling around the ice rink after the race. That scene really grasped the core Olympic value,” wrote one commentator on Naver, South Korea’s biggest Internet portal.

Others heraled the friendship of the two women as a sign of a real “Peace Olympics,” instead of the thaw in inter-Korean relations lauded by the country’s president.

Feb 18, 2018; Pyeongchang, South Korea; Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) and Nao Kodaira (JPN) celebrate after the women’s speed skating 500m during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Gangneung Ice Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has termed the Pyeongchang Winter games the “Peace Olympics” for bringing the two Koreas together and helping ease tensions on the peninsula after a tense standoff over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme.

After the race, the two women spoke of their deep friendship and respect for each other, with Kodaira remembering Lee’s kindness to her even after her loss on the home ground.

“I respect her very much as a human being and a skater. She’s my friend,” Kodaira said.

Lee, for her turn, spoke of the two visiting each other’s homeland and how Kodaira would send her “lots of Japanese food” because she likes it.

“One time we were at the World Cup and waiting for the bus and were taking a picture together,” Lee told reporters. “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.”

Reporting by Soyoung Kim and Simon Jennings in GANGNEUNG, South Korea and Kiyoshi Takenaka in TOKYO, Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty

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