S. Korean athletes vow winning performance at Sochi

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korean athletes on Thursday reaffirmed their drive to put in a strong showing at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia.

Dozens of athletes and officials assembled at the National Training Center in Seoul for their team inauguration ceremony ahead of the Feb. 7-23 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Earlier in the day, the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) announced the final list of 64 athletes and 49 officials for Sochi. It will be the country's largest-ever delegation for a Winter Games.

At the Vancouver Winter Games four years ago, South Korea sent 46 athletes and 37 officials. In terms of the number of athletes, the country's biggest team previously was 48 at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

For Thursday's ceremony, about 80 athletes and officials were present, excluding those in short track speed skating, curling and luge that have departed the country to set up overseas training camps.

Addressing the delegation at the ceremony, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won said he was proud of the athletes who have endured years of hard training to represent the country at the Olympics.

"The Olympic Games will be a festival for everyone to enjoy, and we will all draw inspiration from your performances," Chung said. "With your hard work and courage, we are sure you will all give us a lot to cheer for this year."

Chung also called on the athletes to carry themselves well off the playing field, as the "faces" of the host country of the next Winter Games. The 2018 Winter Olympics will take place in PyeongChang, an east coast alpine town.

"We will spare no efforts to help you stay focused on training," he added. "We will be sending our largest delegation, and we will take the next step to become a true powerhouse in winter sports."

Kim Jae-youl, president of the Korea Skating Union (KSU) and head of the delegation, said the athletes are "crown jewels" of Korea.

"I am convinced that our athletes will work harder than anyone else and will never give up," Kim said. "We will all put up fair fights in accordance with Olympic spirits."

In Sochi, South Korea will be represented in every sport except for ice hockey. The first batch of the delegation will leave for Sochi on Feb. 1.

South Korea has ranked among the top 10 in medals in five of the past six Winter Games, and the goal is to make it six out of seven in Russia.

In Vancouver, South Korea won its all-time record of 14 medals, six of them gold. The gold medal haul matched the total from Turin in 2006 as the country's largest total at a Winter Olympics.

South Korea has competed in 16 Winter Games and won 23 gold, 14 silver and eight bronze medals. All have come from ice sports, and 19 of the gold medals have been won in short track speed skating.

Before Vancouver, South Korea had won all of its Winter Games gold medals in short track speed skating. It all changed in the Great White North, where South Korea picked up three gold medals from speed skating and one from figure skating en route to finishing in fifth place.

Officials have said the goal for South Korea is to win at least four gold medals, which could put the country in the top 10.

Two of the golds may well come from reigning Olympic champions.

Figure skater Kim Yu-na won the gold in Vancouver with a record score of 228.56 points. She has gone through extended periods of absence since then, but returned with a bang last March to win her second career world championship. Having recently won the South Korean national title with impressive programs, Kim enters Sochi as a heavy favorite.

The 23-year-old will attempt to become only the third woman to defend an Olympic figure skating gold, after Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt.

Speed skater Lee Sang-hwa, the women's 500-meter champion in Vancouver, currently holds the world record in the distance at 36.36 seconds, and hasn't really been challenged the past two seasons. She set her first world record in January last year at an International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup event, and then broke it three times in November alone, including twice on back-to-back days.

Only two other women, Bonnie Blair and Catriona Le May Doan, have won two straight speed skating gold medals in the 500m.

At the ceremony, Lee said she isn't feeling any added pressure despite being seen as the top medal contender.

"I am preparing for Sochi like I would for any other competition," she said. "The Olympics can be so unpredictable, and I will have to do my best just like everyone else. If I can stay committed to the preparation, then I think a good result will follow."

Shim Suk-hee, a 16-year-old phenomenon in short track, has also been dominant in recent races and could grab up to two titles, in an individual race and in the 3,000m relay.

Elsewhere, the women's curling team will make its Olympic debut after making an improbable run to the semifinals at the 2012 world championships.

Freestyle skier Choi Jae-woo in the men's moguls and snowboarder Kim Ho-jun in the men's halfpipe will try to blaze trails in their respective sports.

Athletes in bobsleigh, skeleton and luge have made strides this season, winning multiple medals at various international competitions, and South Korea will be well represented in all sledding events.

The KOC also hopes to lay the groundwork in Sochi for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea's PyeongChang, eying up to 20 medals on home soil.

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