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In just a few decades, South Korea’s speed skaters have achieved remarkable success.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

When South Korea's Olympic planners pledged that the Pyeongchang Games would draw Asia into winter sports, they may have had someone like Bae Min-seok in mind.

A 17-year-old high-school student, Bae arrives at the Mokdong Ice Rink in Seoul every weekday at 6 a.m. for speed skating practice. He warms up for one hour, skates for two, then completes a lengthy cool-down routine before going to school.

By 5 p.m., he's back at the rink for another few hours. He puts in a further eight hours of training on Saturdays.

Bae is in many ways a product of South Korea's remarkable success in short-track speed skating. He began competing in tournaments organized by his elementary school and, later, watched footage of South Korean skaters taking gold in the 1,000 metres at the Nagano Games, a competition held before he was born.

"It was so cool, it made me want to get into the sport," he said.

Olympic gold medalist Lee Seung-hoon attended Bae's high school. Sung Si-bak, a winner of numerous World Cup races, became his idol. He was surrounded by greatness – and expects the same of himself.

"I'd like to be on the national team for the next Olympics," he said.

Those Games won't be far away. They will be held in Beijing, two years after the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo – three consecutive Olympics in a region the leaders of global sport see as the most important frontier for new athletes and viewers.

"The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will open the door to the Olympics Asia era," said Roh Tae-kang, South Korea's second vice-minister of culture, sports and tourism, at a recent academic conference in Seoul.

And South Korea would, its Olympic planners said, stand at the vanguard, a country where winter sports would undergo an awakening.

It hasn't worked out that way. The number of local registered participants in most winter sports is actually down by almost 5 per cent in the half-decade leading up to the Pyeongchang Games, according to numbers maintained by the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee. The number of skiers at local resorts has fallen 28 per cent over roughly the same period. Even in skating sports, where South Korea has excelled, numbers are down: There were fewer registered figure and speed skaters in 2017 than in 2012.

"I don't think Korea really cares about this Olympics," said Laurent Vanat, whose annual report on snow and mountain tourism is the standard for measuring global participation. "They haven't done anything to use the Olympics opportunity to promote the sports."

Now, as the Pyeongchang Olympics begin, people in South Korea are trying to sort out what has gone wrong – and what they can learn from hockey.

A few days before the South Korean men's hockey team suited up for its first Olympic exhibition game, coach Jim Paek was on the ice, trying to wring the best from his players.

"Speed, speed, I need speed! I need speed! Attack!" he yelled.

The players responded, sending pucks ricocheting around the arena.

"Who needs coffee when you got adrenaline?" yelled Eric Regan, a former Oshawa Generals player who began playing hockey in Asia in 2013.

He had reason to be excited.

Hockey has bucked the trend: Unlike other sports, its registered numbers in South Korea are up more than 50 per cent since 2012.

The men's hockey team – comprised of players born in South Korea, Canada and the United States, although they now all hold South Korean passports – can take some of the credit. The team has played together for more than three years under the instruction of two former NHL players, Paek and assistant coach Richard Park.

They began with what "back in North America would be considered basic fundamentals," Park said. "That's really what we were dealt with. South Korea is not a very big hockey nation. … And the way they've been taught is not necessarily wrong or right, but it's not what we believe and how we believe the game should be played."

The coaches introduced Western systems of play, and players learned from each other.

And they started winning games. In 2017, the men's team entered the International Ice Hockey Federation Division I championship ranked 23rd in the world. Three regulation wins and a shootout victory were enough for a second-place finish, earning the team a promotion to the IIHF's top tier and a ticket to the Olympics.

"To jump up that quickly is pretty amazing in hockey," said Matt Dalton, the team's Ontario-born goalie. A few years ago "we were playing against countries like Estonia and Lithuania. And now to be playing Canada – it's pretty special."

In Pyeongchang, the men's team is scheduled to play the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Canada. And while they have sought to keep expectations low – "in sports, success is measured by results, and that's going to be a challenge for us," Park said – the mere fact they'll be squaring off against those teams is an accomplishment.

"It's a very important start for Korean hockey," Paek said.

He accepted the job as coach, he said, to help South Korea "prepare for the Olympics, but also to develop some sustainability afterward – for 10 years, 20 years after."

There are, of course, obstacles.

As with most sports, South Korean children start hockey in school. Often, the coaching is poor, practice time is insufficient, the teams are tiny, and "they don't play any games," said Patrik Martinec, a Czech forward who played in Asia League Ice Hockey. As a result, "it's not fun." Hockey for many South Korean kids is the equivalent of "going to an English academy."

The total number of registered hockey players remains small: 3,052 in a country of 51 million.

Which is why Martinec is thrilled about Paek's team and the women's hockey squad, which has itself attracted huge attention by inserting North Korean women onto the bench.

The players on those teams "have the potential to be role models for kids who are not yet attracted to hockey," said Martinec, who coaches Anyang Halla, a professional club in a small South Korean city. "This is the way to show the public that Koreans can play hockey."

It's working. The women's team has been featured in a film, and thousands crowded into the arena to watch its pre-Olympics warm-up game, even though few had ever watched hockey. At the men's first exhibition game, businessman Justin Na came with nine family members after his brother-in-law bought tickets.

"I asked him, 'Do you like hockey?' He said no. But because this is the Winter Olympics, I guess he wants to have a special experience."

How high are South Korea's hopes for winter sports? It has predicted a fourth-place finish in the Pyeongchang Games medal standings, which would constitute a huge leap from its 12th-place finish in Sochi. Accomplish that, and the arenas will fill, the country's top sports figures believe.

"With a huge international competition like the Olympic Games, and the fact it's happening in our country rather than abroad, it's natural that more Korean people would become more interested in winter sports," said Kim Ki-hoon, South Korea's first gold medalist in short-track speed skating and an icon of winter sports in the country.

Kim can turn to his own career for proof.

He began skating at the age of six, a sickly boy sent to the ice by a father who thought he could benefit from developing his lower-body strength. The family happened to live beside an arena at Dongdaemun, which Kim believes was the only indoor ice rink in South Korea at the time. But "there were no athletes specialized in short-track speed skating in the country," he said.

That changed as South Korea prepared to participate in the inaugural Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, in 1986. Kim was still a high-school student when he tried out for the new short-track team – clad in long-track skates.

South Korean speed skaters won medals at those games, then set out to improve, travelling to Toronto and Ottawa to compete against Canadians, all the while collecting video so they could study their top rivals.

In 1988, at the Calgary Olympics, with short-track speed skating still a demonstration sport, Kim came first in the 1,500 metres.

Afterward, young South Koreans started showing up at arenas to strap on skates. "This was the case at ice rinks around the country. The country also started to build ice rinks," said Kim, who went on to win two golds in Albertville, France – including South Korea's first ever at a Winter Games, a seminal moment for the country – five at the 1992 World Short Track Speed Skating Championships and another gold in Lillehammer, Norway.

In his wake have come many others. South Korea is No. 1 in Olympic short-track medals by a good margin. Kim's effect on South Korean sport was so profound that he was named mayor of the athletes village in Pyeongchang.

"Our athletes perform very well at competitions, and the public recognizes that and has really grown to love and support the sport," he said.

So why is the number of South Korean skaters declining?

One reason is facilities. The International Ice Hockey Federation counts 30 ice rinks in South Korea, a quarter of the number in Japan and not much more than in Australia.

"We have a real dearth of ice rinks in Korea," said Jung Hyunwoo, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Sport Science.

He blames a lack of government financial support. "You can't make money with ice rinks. That's the biggest reason. Because winter sports are not that popular in Korea."

An aging population hasn't helped, either.

Nor has the continuing niche status of winter sports.

Take Kim Byeong-chan, 18, a curler who practises at least four times a week, studies YouTube videos of Canadian John Morris and has his sights set on competing on the world stage.

"I want to go to the Olympics," he said. It is, he believes, a realistic goal.

Local curling officials aren't so sure.

Kim is both dedicated and talented, said Park Geon-woo, director-general of the Incheon Curling Federation. But he can't get to the Olympics "on his own. … It's a team competition. He has to find other friends as passionate about the game" – a difficult challenge in a country that counts fewer than 1,000 curlers.

Then there are the ills of elite sport in a country that tends to see gruelling work as the surest path to success.

The Korea Skating Union has been mired in so many controversies that South Koreans now substitute similar-sounding curse words when they refer to it. The latest came in January, when it imposed a lifetime ban on a national team coach who admitted to beating short-track speed skater Shim Suk-hee, a 2014 gold medalist, "to help enhance her performance," said Kim Sang-kyum, who chaired an independent disciplinary committee convened by the Korea Skating Union, in late January.

Other athletes have just left – none more prominently than Ahn Hyun-soo, the skater who competed for Russia under the name Viktor Ahn in Sochi. When he won three golds there, he received plaudits in his birth country for rejecting a sports program rife with allegations of powerful coaches engaged in physical assault, favouritism and match-fixing.

"You can actually describe some of the people in South Korean sport as 'gangsters,'" Chung Hee-joon a physical education scholar at Dong-a University in Busan, told Reuters in January.

Then there's the workload.

When Bae, the speed skater, looks at others his age, what he envies "the most is sleep." He gets about five hours a night and has kept a similar schedule since the age of nine. "I want to make more friends but I can't," he said.

"Of course I have some regrets. If I were better at other things, I would have done them. But I'm good at this and I want to do this, so I keep doing it."

But is it still enjoyable?

He paused for a few seconds before answering.

"Fun? It's tough to enjoy training. But during competitions, when you earn good results, you feel a sense of pleasure in triumph."

And South Korea as a country continues to triumph in speed skating, a discipline in which its Olympic gold medal count is more than four times higher than all other Winter Olympic sports combined.

Some South Korean scholars, however, have grown convinced that a better way lies in hockey – and the Canadians promoting it.

Indeed, the men's team has already become the subject of academic study. Song Hong-sun, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Sport Science, shared a PowerPoint presentation breaking down Paek's style to explain what he means.

At the top of the list: "team toughness, family, fight for each other, selflessness."

Song enthuses about Paek's ability to instill a spirit of co-operation and to instruct clearly.

The difficulty attracting sports participants in South Korea, Song said, is a "problem of Korean culture." But Korean-born Paek, who grew up in Canada, has "a teaching philosophy that informs his leadership."

"He knows the Korean culture and he combines Korean culture into great leadership. We have to open up to that," Song said. "He's an example of how Korean coaching can develop."

With reporting from Cynthia Yoo

For photographer Taehoon Kim, the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and the ski slopes at Yongpyong are layered with memories of his late father — and with regret