Olympic hug defies animosity between South Korea and Japan as fans hail ‘borderless friendship’

It’s been nicknamed the Peace Olympics, with the spotlight firmly focused on North and South Korea uniting for the first time in the history of the games.

But the diplomatic ability of the Pyeongchang Games to transcend politics is not, it seems, confined to the two Koreas – it’s also working its magic on relations between Japan and Korea.

A series of photographs capturing a Japanese competitor giving her tearful South Korean rival a hug just minutes after winning a gold medal has gone viral across the two states, between which tensions still linger following Japan’s 35-year colonial rule.

The warm gesture by Japan’s 500 metre speedskater Nao Kodaira towards defending champion Lee Sang-hwa from South Korea triggered an expansive outpouring of coverage in newspapers and social media in both countries.

Among those moved were Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, who felt compelled to mention it when he called Ms Kodaira to congratulate her on her gold medal win.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, celebrated the 'wonderful' momentCredit:
 Eugene Hoshiko/AP

“The sight of two of you embracing each other after the race and congratulating each other was really wonderful,” he reportedly told her on the phone.

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The hug took place shortly after Japan’s Ms Kodaira upset the home crowd to beat Ms Lee as she sped to victory in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Sunday evening in the 500-metre speedskating race.

The images were particularly poignant as the two nations have long endured strained bilateral ties after Japan’s 35-year colonial rule of South Korea.

South Korean newspapers were quick to pick up on this, featuring prominent photographs of the two hugging, beneath headlines such as “a borderless friendship”, while thousands have praised the gesture on social media.

One South Korean on Naver, South Korea’s biggest internet portal, wrote: “I was sobbing while watching Kodaira and Lee strolling around the ice rink after the race. That scene really grasped the core Olympic value.”

Viewers in Japan appeared equally moved, with one tweeting: “The scene of the two embracing is something all humanity has been waiting for.”

Speaking after the event, the two skaters described how they had defied geography, politics and sporting rivalry to become firm friends during years spent competing against one another.

Ms Kodaira also described how after she won a World Cup race in Seoul a few years ago, Ms Lee had demonstrated kindness to her by ordering a taxi and paying the fare when she returned to the airport.

“She is a friend I can respect both as a person and as an athlete,” she said.

Ms Lee added: “She always looks after me whenever I am in Japan. She gives me presents and sends me Japanese food.”

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