NEW YORK (Reuters) - American Apolo Anton Ohno recalls the lift that racing at home in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City gave him and expects the South Korean speed skaters to capitalize fully on that advantage in Pyeongchang next month.
The energy bubbling from a packed, supportive arena is infectious, and when combined with the familiarity with the Gangneung Ice Arena and its surface, the Koreans will enjoy a major advantage, Ohno said in a telephone interview.
“There’s so many things that I could speak to that really give an advantage to that host country because I competed at one, when I competed at Salt Lake City,” said Ohno, who won his first gold medal in 2002.
“I saw the difference between my first Olympic games and my second and my third. It’s a huge advantage, I have to tell you. Maybe five to 10-percent increases in performance.”
South Korea are seen as favorites to capture as many as five of the eight gold medals awarded in short track, according to predictions from Gracenote, a unit of media ratings tracker Nielsen Holdings Plc.
By some forecasts, they could grab as many as eight medals overall and Ohno said he would be watching the Korean men to perform after failing to win anything at Sochi in 2014.
“Although the Korean men’s team has not been as dominant as they usually are, I suspect that they will be in incredible form for these Olympic Games,” Ohno said.
“I think that they will do very well. I actually think that they’ll be the ones to watch.”
Ohno, who won a total of eight Olympic medals — two gold, said the 1,000-metre men’s and women’s races will be the best to watch for any upsets.
Korea’s Choi Min-jeong for the women and Seo Yi-ran for the men are among the favorites.
“It combines the strategy from the 1,500 meters with the speed and explosive power of the 500 meters,” Ohno said.
“So you have to be a really strong overall athlete, and you need to have a bit of luck because anything can happen.”
Also on the “anything-can-happen” front, Ohno said U.S. newcomer Maame Biney, who will turn 18 a few days before heading to Pyeongchang, could contend in the women’s 500-metre race.
Born in Ghana and now living in Virginia, she won bronze in that distance at last year’s junior world championships.
“She is just at the tip of her career, and she could possibly be one of the greatest American short-track speed skaters from the women’s side that we’ve ever seen,” Ohno said.
“(She) is really needed right now because we haven’t had anyone like that in quite a long time.”
Indeed, Ohno himself remains the face most Americans associate with the sport and the U.S. has not performed at the same level since he retired.
In his last Olympics, the Vancouver games in 2010, the Americans won six medals. In Sochi they captured just one - a silver in the men’s 5,000-metre relay.
“We need a deeper pool of talent. We need more competitive skaters. We need better grass-roots training. We need more emphasis on coaching,” Ohno said.
“These are critical elements that are missing right now in our short-track program.”
Even though not competing, Ohno’s familiar goateed image will find its way into millions of Americans’ homes throughout next month’s games as he serves as an analyst for NBC.
Ohno said he could not wait to get to Pyeongchang, even though he and South Korea have had a “wild relationship.”
His 2002 gold medal in the 1,500 meters came after South Korea’s Kim Dong-sung, who had finished ahead of him, was disqualified for impeding Ohno.
It created an uproar in South Korea and for a time he became public enemy number one there, but he now travels to the country regularly and counts it as a favorite destination.
“Number one, I love the food, so that helps when you can eat your way through the country,” he said.
“I’ve always received a lot of love in Korea.
“When I was there in person, I was always showered with a lot of love and support from the people.”
Reporting by Dan Burns; editing by Greg Stutchbury