By Kang Seung-woo
Mo Tae-bum received the best gift of his life for his 21st birthday Tuesday when he became South Korea's first Olympic gold medalist in long-track speed skating history.
The unheralded Korean claimed the long-elusive gold medal in the men's 500 meters Tuesday (KST) as he posted the second-fastest time in his first 500 meters (34.92 seconds) and the second-fastest time in the second 500 (34.90) for an overall time of 69.82 seconds, 0.16 ahead of runner-up Keiichiro Nagashima of Japan.
Japan also took the bronze medal with Joji Kato clocking in at 70.01 seconds.
"I raced a lot better than I expected in the first race. So it gave me courage to do better in the second race," Mo said.
"I kept practicing over and over and I think that was very important and I really wanted to do well. It's my best birthday present and it's my present to Koreans."
Medal-favorites Lee Kang-seok, who won a bronze medal in Turin in 2006, failed to add another Olympic medal to his tally, placing fourth, 0.03 seconds behind Kato, and five-time Olympian Lee Kyou-hyuk finished 15th with a time of 70.48.
"I was a little bit disappointed that the other two were favorites," Mo said. "But that gave me an opportunity to do even better and made me more eager to race."
Mo's gold medal is the first earned for South Korea at the Winter Olympic Games in a sport other than short track since the nation started participating in the Olympics in 1948 in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Korea has won 18 gold medals in short track.
Mo's is Korea's fourth medal in long track speed skating.
Kim Yoon-man snatched a silver medal in the men's 500 in the 1992 event in Albertville, France; Lee Kang-seok won bronze four years ago; and Lee Seung-hoon took silver in the men's 5,000 Sunday.
Mo's performance came as a big surprise as the Seoul-native specializes in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters, events in which he won gold medals at the Harbin Winter Universiade in China last year.
Mo was ranked 14th in the International Skating Union (ISU) World Cup series in the 500 meters and was not expected to challenge high-profile teammates Kang-seok and Kyou-hyuk.
Skating with nothing to lose, he surprised many when he jumped to the top of the leaderboard at the Richmond Olympic Oval after the first race.
Due to a resurfacing machine malfunction during a scheduled break for ice preparation, the race was delayed for more than an hour.
Mo, who was paired with Canadian hopeful and world-record holder Jeremy Wotherspoon in the second race, outdueled him for the gold medal.