Speed skating rivals Kodaira and Lee put friendship first

Japanese speed skater Nao Kodaira stormed to gold in the women's 500m on 18 February, beating defending champion and local favourite Lee Sang-hwa. However, it was not the drama on the track, but rather the embodiment of Olympic spirit that followed that provided the event’s enduring image.

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A photograph of Kodaira hugging and comforting her rival, who was in tears holding the Republic of Korea’s flag, has melted hearts in both countries, even drawing praise from Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

At the Gangneung Oval the two athletes demonstrated unity, warmth and mutual respect. “The sight of two of you embracing each other after the race and congratulating each other was really wonderful,” Abe told Kodaira the following day during a phone call to congratulate her on her first Olympic gold medal.

A fond embrace

Taking to social medial, many Japanese fans wrote that the scene brought them to tears. “The scene of the two embracing is something all humanity has been waiting for,” said one.

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In the host country, meanwhile, images of the two athletes embracing were emblazoned across the pages of the major newspapers which headlines such as “A borderless friendship” and “Lee's tears and Kodaira's consolation - the rivals' beautiful finale.”

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

Peace Olympics

The Republic of Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has dubbed the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games the "Peace Olympics" for their role in bringing the two Korean neighbours together and helping ease tensions on the peninsula.

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The bond between the two Olympians has been heralded as a further example of the Olympic Games’ ability to look beyond tensions and foster harmony.

After the race, the two athletes both spoke of their deep friendship and respect for each other, with Kodaira citing Lee's graciousness in defeat. “I respect her very much as a human being and a skater. She’s my friend," Kodaira said.

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Lee, in turn, spoke of how the two visited each other at home and how Kodaira would send her Japanese food because she knew how much the Korean athlete liked it.

"One time we were at the World Cup and waiting for the bus and were taking a picture together," Lee recalled. "Nao [Kodaira] said: 'At the next [Winter] Olympics you’ll win and I’ll take second place'. I told her: 'No, you you’ll take first place and I’ll take second place'.

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“We’ve shared a lot of good memories together.”