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Behind Olympic death threats, a South Korean fan culture that takes speed skating seriously

Choi Min-jeong of South Korea races ahead in the women’s 1500 meters short track speedskating semifinal in the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018.

David J. Phillip/AP

Cho Sang-hyun came to a night of short track speed skating at Gangneung Ice Arena Saturday for exactly one reason.

He arrived with four family members and a baby, to an event where many paid $410 per ticket.

He wanted victory in exchange.

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Korean skaters "always win gold," said the fund manager from Seoul, 36. "So I also expect they will get gold today. I just want to watch."

Read also: Canadian speed skater Kim Boutin threatened online after controversial Olympic bronze

History would say he has reason to demand as much. No country has more medals in short track than South Korea, which has dominated the sport since its introduction to the Olympics. The speed skating races Saturday night were perhaps the closest South Korea has to a gold medal hockey game, a prime-time display of the country's prowess conducted in front of 12,000 spectators screaming loud enough to risk aural pain.

The noise can be infectious, even to competitors from other countries.

But as Canadian Kim Boutin stepped onto the ice Saturday for a warmup skate before racing the 1,500 metres, the crowd didn't sound welcoming. It sounded ominous.

Was there someone out there, she wondered, whose lust for gold could mean harm for her?

"I was just scared for my safety. And I know everyone told me it was under control, and don't worry about it. But of course it was on my mind," she said.

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Four days earlier, a referee at the women's 500-metre race assessed a penalty against South Korean skater Choi Min-jeong, stripping her of a second-place finish and allowing Boutin to step onto the podium for bronze.

Almost immediately, social media lit up with vicious comments, at least one implying a desire to kill Boutin. In the days that followed, she stuck close to teammates, ensconced in the Olympic bubble and playing games in their condo.

But on Saturday, she had to go back to face the fans, not knowing if they meant her good or ill.

She finished her warmup, then went to meet sports psychologist Fabien Abejean – and began to cry. "It was a lot of emotions to come back here," she said.

But the tears drained some of the fear. "It helped me a lot to turn the page," she said.

She got back on the ice, and skated to a bronze medal.

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The crowd got what it wanted, too: a gold medal for Choi.

But the brush with the brutish side of South Korean fandom left Boutin "pretty shaken up," she said – and left Koreans fans themselves pondering what had gone wrong.

"I don't understand it. It's shameful," said Kim Kwang-soo, 39, a financial writer.

"It's national pride," said Ham Chang-hwa, 33, a medical doctor. Those who threatened Boutin don't "represent our country," he said. But, he added, he too thought Boutin had herself committed an infractions. "Most Koreans were angry about that," he said.

There is history here: American skater Apolo Anton Ohno won gold in 2002 following the disqualification of South Korean skater Kim Dong-sung, who crossed the line first. A tsunami of hate e-mail subsequently crashed the United States Olympic Committee computer system. Ohno became, he has said in seriousness, the second-most hated person in South Korea, after Osama bin Laden. One South Korean company produced toilet paper printed with his face.

Anger over the race ran so deep that when the South Korean men's soccer team scored against the U.S. at the World Cup four months later, the goalscorer pantomimed speed skating, as if he had avenged national pride on a soccer pitch.

"It was like, 'We don't forget,'" said Kerry Maher, who has become a national celebrity as a "superfan" of the Lotte Giants baseball team.

The country's hard-core fans are consumed by "unfettered passion," he said, and a "win at all costs mentality."

Fan culture plays a sufficiently outsized role in sporting and civic life in South Korea that it has drawn academic study. One scholar sought to figure out whether an outpouring of street celebrations during the 2002 World Cup, which South Korea hosted, counted as a "festival" or "madness." An estimated 22-million people took to the streets, a moment credited for everything from fostering new national unity to inspiring political participation.

Baseball games, too, are a stage for a raucous fan culture, with spectators led in cheer battles by cheermasters. South Korean baseball is to rock 'n' roll what Major League Baseball is to opera, Maher says.

But South Koreans don't globally dominate soccer and hockey.

The stakes are higher in speed skating where South Korea is a superpower, but the competitions come less frequently. "To see it tainted or possibly taken away," as it was with Choi's disqualification, "it's kind of devastating to rabid fans," Maher said.

It doesn't help that the South Korean sense of nationalism also "stresses Koreanness through having Korean 'blood,'" said James Turnbull, a writer and speaker on Korean culture. "This means many Koreans react the way they do because they feel like a member of their 'family' has been cheated."

For South Korean sports fans, too, what happened with Boutin wasn't a solitary event. It was the latest affront on a global stage, the emotional successor to both the Ohno gold and the silver given to South Korean figure skater Kim Yuna, who in the eyes of many had skated a champion's performance in Sochi.

When it comes to getting unfavourable calls in sports, "Why is it only us?" asked Dr. Ham.

But if that is the downside of competing before fans who take sport as religion – a crime hardly unique to South Koreans – the upside is that, on the ice, zealots in the stands can actually give foreign rivals a boost.

The home team might feel pressure. Others just bathe in the energy.

"When you're with a Korean in a race, it's especially motivating, the whole ice rink is really shouting loud," said German skater Bianca Walter. "It makes it really fun."

South Korean fans are so dedicated to the sport that "even at the cafeteria they call my name" and ask for pictures, said Canadian skater Valerie Maltais.

On the ice, meanwhile, there is no way for a South Korean skater to sneak up. "Today when Choi was coming, I knew, because the whole crowd became super loud. So it can be a bit of a disadvantage for them," Maltais said.

And "it's always fun to be here because they don't only cheer for Korea. They cheer for good skaters and they know about the sport. It's nice."

Editor’s note: A Monday Olympics story incorrectly said Canadian speed skater Kim Boutin is the only Canadian woman to medal in two individual events at a Winter Olympics.
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