GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Nao Kodaira stormed to gold in the women’s 500 metres in an Olympic record time of 36.94 seconds at the Gangneung Oval on Sunday, becoming the first female speed skater from Japan to win an Olympic title in an individual event.
Defending champion Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea settled for silver, while Karolina Erbanova of the Czech Republic won the bronze medal.
Kodaira, the reigning world champion who has dominated the distance over the past seasons, shaved 0.34 seconds off the previous record set by Lee at the Sochi Games four years ago and is the first woman to finish the race in under 37 seconds at sea level.
The Japanese spoke to Lee after the race and the two skaters raised the Korean and Japanese flags together.
“Sports can make the world one together. It’s simple,” Kodaira told reporters, speaking through an interpreter. “She was under big pressure. She fought well. I told her, ‘I respect you still and a lot’.”
The 31-year-old came into the race with huge expectations of herself due to her sheer domination of the distance in recent seasons — she has won in each of her last 15 World Cup appearances stretching back to 2016.
“I was the captain of the whole Japanese delegation this time. I know a lot of attention comes from the Japanese people. I knew that,” she added. “All I had to do is skate as I am supposed to skate.”
Lee, who won back-to-back titles in the shortest speed-skating distance at the last two Olympics, suffered a chronic knee injury last year and though Kodaira won the day, it was the Korean who drew the loudest cheers from the packed Oval.
“It doesn’t matter, I still have two gold medals and I still have the world record,” said Lee, who was in tears 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 saw me competing in the Olympics, I think she cried too. I had a goal of coming in at 36.8 seconds, that didn’t happen... well it’s over, I still achieved everything I could as a skater.”
Kodaira, who also won silver in the women’s 1,000m on Wednesday, joins Tomomi Okazaki, who won bronze at the Nagano Games in 1998, as the only Japanese skaters to win a medal in the event.
She got off to a lightning quick start over the first 100 metres and flew around the track and although Lee started quicker than her rival, she could not maintain her momentum on the back straight.
The 28-year-old crowd favourite still managed to finish 0.01 seconds ahead of Erbanova for her first medal of the Games.
The race was the first speed-skating event at the Oval in which no Dutch skaters finished on the podium.
The United States endured another day of disappointment, with Brittany Bowe ending in fifth place, ahead of the highest-placed Dutch skater, Jorien ter Mors, who beat Kodaira to gold in the 1,000m.
Reporting by Simon Jennings; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty and Clare Fallon