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Speed skating rivals Kodaira, Lee show true sportswomanship after 500-m final

Japan's Nao Kodaira, right, approaches Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea after the women's 500-meter speed skating race at Gangneung Oval at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, on Feb. 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Japan's speed skating queen Nao Kodaira, who clinched Pyeongchang Olympic gold in the women's 500-meter race on Feb. 18 with a new Olympic record, and her rival and world record holder Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea praised each other after the much-anticipated event in Lee's home country.

When Japan's Olympic captain Kodaira arrived at Yangyang International Airport on Feb. 4, not only Japanese media but news crews from South Korea flocked to the airport to get comments on the coming races from the 1,000-meter speed skating world record holder.

Lee is "a fantastic athlete," the Japanese skater said of South Korea's two-time defending Olympic champion. "Rather than focusing on winning, I hope we can show a heated race," added Kodaira, who has a 15-race World Cup winning streak under her belt.

Close in age, Kodaira and Lee are very good friends, and they acknowledge each other's talent. They encourage each other and are often seen talking whenever they appear in the same competition. Lee has said she likes Kodaira's skating style. Despite their close relationship, they have oftentimes been the target of news coverage trying to fuel mutual competition. Lee has sent stern rebukes to the media for overheated reporting on her and her Japanese rival.

In the Feb. 18 final, Kodaira skated before Lee, crossing the finish line in an Olympic record 36.94 seconds, but she remained expressionless after her run. Lee, who raced in the following pair, was showered with loud cheers and applause, but flinched when coming into the last corner, finishing in 37.33 seconds. As Lee dissolved into tears after her race, Kodaira skated close to her and held her hand. After all the places were finalized, Lee skated a circle on the ice to thank her supporters with a South Korean flag, but could not hold back her tears. Kodaira again approached her, and they skated together while exchanging words.

Kodaira showed empathy for Lee after the race, telling reporters that the defending champion "must have been under immense pressure." The South Korean also revealed that Kodaira told her that she still had great respect for Lee. After the tears were dried, the two rivals smiled radiantly on the podium.

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