Sports is all about competition, but even the fiercest sporting rivalries often lead to close friendships too. Here's the story of Korean Sang-Hwa Lee and Japanese Nao Kodaira, enemies on the ice, but friends in real life.
Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) 2017©ISU
Lee had been the queen of the 500m in Speed Skating at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games. Meanwhile Kodaira was steadily working and improving, only to beat Lee for the first time in a 500m World Cup Race in Seoul in November 2015. While Lee was struggling with injuries, Kodaira became the new empress of the sprint, winning the 500m World Cup in the 2015 and 2017 seasons. But Lee fought back, aiming to be on top again at the 2018 home Olympic Games in PyeongChang.
Nao Kodaira (JPN) 2017 ©ISU
In the pre-Olympic season Kodaira was invincible in the 500m. She beat Lee in the World Championships at the Gangneung Olympic Oval to set up one of the great Olympic rivalries at PyeongChang 2018. Lee was looking for revenge.
Sang-Haw Lee (KOR) and Nao Kodaira (JPN) 2017©ISU
One year later Kodaira and Lee faced each other again and the stakes could not be on better form. Would Kodaira become the first Japanese lady to take home Olympic Speed Skating gold, or would Lee take her third consecutive Olympic 500m gold on home soil?
Kodaira raced Czech Karolina Erbanova in the 14th pairing, before Lee had to take on Kodaira’s compatriot Arisa Go in the 15th and penultimate pair. With an Olympic record of 36.94 after a 10.26 opener Kodaira set the bar high, but the home crowd went wild when Lee managed to open in 10.20. She ended up in tears, however. Lee was not able to match Kodaria's full lap and had to settle for silver in 37.33.
Watch Kodaira and Lee compete in Women's 500m Speed Skating in Pyeongchang 2018
The first to comfort Lee was Kodaira. “I told her well done,” Kodaira said. “There was such pressure and I wanted to praise her for her efforts. I respect and will continue to respect her." The two skated a lap of honor together, holding up the Korean and the Japanese flags. “Sport can make the world one together, it’s simple," Kodaira explained.
Despite the rivalry on the ice, Lee and Kodaira's friendship goes back a long way, as Lee explained afterwards: “I was competing with Kodaira in many Games before and whenever I had a victory she would praise me. She gave me such a good experience, being together from the early years on and I really respect her.”
The Japanese and the Korean sprinter shared fond memories of each other after their epic Olympic 500m battle: “She’s really kind, always kind”, Kodaira said. “I remember about two years ago, it was my first World Cup win in Seoul and I had to go back to the Netherlands immediately after the race, so I went from the rink to the airport straight away. Sang-Hwa got a taxi for me and actually paid for the taxi for me.
“She must have been frustrated because I had won, but she was so sincere and helped me so much. That made me really happy. I think as a human being and also as a skater, I respect her very much and she’s my friend."
Sang-Hwa Lee and Nao Kodaira in Pyeongchang 2018©DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
Lee remembered a time when she and Kodaira were waiting for a bus together at an Astana World Cup race: “We taking pictures together and Nao said: ‘Next Olympics you can win and I’ll take second place.’ And I told her: ‘No you take first place and I’ll be second. We’ve shared a lot of good memories together.
When I visit Japan she always cares for me and she gives me gifts and I like Japanese food, so Nao sends me a lot of Japanese food. And when she comes to Korea I’ll send her Korean food as well. It’s not about the competition, we’re good friends.”