VANCOUVER, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korean women skaters were disqualified in the 3,000 meter relay short track event final on Wednesday in a controversial violation call by the referees.
The South Korean team of four skaters -- Lee Eun-byul, Park Seung-hi, Cho Ha-ri and Kim Min-jung -- finished first in the relay event at the Pacific Coliseum, ahead of rivals from China and Canada.
In a controversial decision, the referees nullified South Korea's win, saying a South Korean skater impeded a Chinese skater with six laps remaining. The disqualification ruling lifted the Chinese women to the gold medal podium, with Canada and the U.S. teams taking silver and bronze medals, respectively.
The chief referee in the questionable decision was Australian James Hewish. Under the International Skating Union's rule, each Olympic short track contest is refereed by five judges and the chief referee holds the absolute power in the final disqualification decision.
Shortly after the race, South Korean women skaters circled the rink, triumphantly waving their national flag to celebrate gold medal. But the unexpected disqualification ruling announced a few minutes later dashed their hope for the nation's fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal in the 3,000m relay event.
Korean team coaches and officials strongly protested the controversial decision, but the referees did not heed.
"The circumstances (leading to the referees' decision) were ambiguous. A foul could have been called or not," said Choi Kwang-bok, who coaches South Korean women's short track squad, after the game. "But we have no other way to appeal the decision or overrule it."
It is the second time that chief referee Hewish has disqualified South Korea's Olympic short track gold medal.
Back in 2002, South Korean Kim Dong-sung was disqualified by Hewish in the men's 1,500m short track event at the Salt Lake City Olympics after crossing the finish line first. American Apolo Anton Ohno, accused of drawing attention of the referees with an alleged "Hollywood action" at that time, was awarded the gold medal instead.
That incident triggered huge resentment in South Korea towards Hewish as well as towards Ohno.
Hewish, who had been suspended for two years since the 2002 Olympics, controlled the race again in Vancouver this year.
Choi, the South Korean coach, said he had asked his athletes to exert extra caution not to clash with other players after learning that Hewish would referee the 3,000m relay event.
"I asked my players to skate carefully under Hewish but it happened in the final match," said Choi. But he added that they will again pull themselves together to compete for the women's 1,000m event slated for Friday.
"We will concentrate on the next game. Definitely we won the race, but only the referees did not recognize it."
South Korea's netizens and sports fans also exploded with anger, with some calling for a boycott against Australian products. They said they can hardly understand the Australian chief referee's decision even after repeatedly watching the replays of the game. email@example.com