BEIJING, Feb. 13 (Korea Bizwire) — Competing at his third and final Winter Games in Beijing, South Korean short track speed skater Kwak Yoon-gy is enjoying his Olympic experience to the fullest — acting as the team’s designated photographer, resident comedian and even its de facto spokesperson.
He isn’t just that proverbial kid in a candy store. He is a kid who is being paid to be in a candy store.
Kwak has only been in one race so far, the semifinal heat of the men’s 5,000m relay Friday night at Capital Indoor Stadium. But even before lifting South Korea into the final with a late burst of speed, Kwak had already made his presence felt in Beijing.
Kwak was one of two co-flag bearers for South Korea at the opening ceremony, joining his short track teammate Kim A-lang.
Kwak stood out for sporting his bright pink hair and for hopping up and down in lockstep with Kim with their hands on the national flag.
When he is not training or competing, Kwak has been busy keeping his 480,000 subscribers entertained on his YouTube channel.
He has been providing viewers some behind-the-scenes looks at his fellow Olympic athletes in Beijing, with some clips drawing over 2 million views.
The elder statesman on the short track team at 32, Kwak has also been its voice of reason. He hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind, especially on the state of officiating.
Kwak made critical comments on refereeing last Sunday, a day after China had won the inaugural mixed team relay gold medal, even though South Korea was not directly involved in any decisions.
Kwak wondered aloud if any country other than China would have received the same, favorable treatment from the refereeing crew.
This was after Kwak had already taken heat from the Chinese fans for predicting that skaters who so much as brushed past Chinese skaters would get disqualified during Beijing 2022.
Then on Monday, two South Korean short trackers, Hwang Dae-heon and Lee June-seo, were penalized in the semifinals of the men’s 1,000m on what the South Korean team felt were unfair and biased decisions.
South Korea decided to appeal this case with the top sports tribunal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Later asked if he had regretted criticizing officiating earlier, Kwak flatly said no, because “I was just expressing my thoughts. And I learned that many people back home feel the same way about officiating that I do.”
All of this happened before Kwak even took the ice. Kwak finished fourth among five Beijing-bound skaters in the national Olympic trials last year and is only eligible for the relay.
His first race came Friday night in the 5,000m relay semifinals.
With two laps to go, Kwak, as the team’s final skater, made an impressive pass on Itzhak de Laat of the Netherlands on the inside corner and then helped South Korea beat the Russian Olympic Committee by 0.046 second for first place.
As he crossed the finish line, Kwak let out a primal scream and pounded his chest several times. It was easy to see just how much he’d been itching to finally skate and make headlines with his action on the ice, not his words away from it.
Asked if his celebration meant anything, Kwak said with a smile, “I wanted to announce my arrival. I wanted to show people, ‘I am finally here.’”
Kwak was a member of the last South Korean men’s relay team to win an Olympic medal: at Vancouver 2010, Kwak and his boys grabbed silver. South Korea was kept off the podium at each of the next two competitions, and Kwak is determined to end that drought.
As long as he can control his nerves, that is.
“Before this race, I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Kwak said after Friday night’s race. “It kept me up last night. But I saw that my younger teammates were even more nervous than I was. So I didn’t want to look rattled in front of them. I eventually settled down.”