by Aashish Gadhvi
The Beijing Olympics was a fortnight of sporting gold, a plethora of the world’s top athletes going head to head in the greatest show on Earth. This year’s Olympics was always going to be major headlines, not just for the sports but also for the tirade of anti-Chinese media which preceded it (Tibet, Pollution, Human Rights, blah blah). But forget all that for now, we’re here to talk about the Korean campaign, which in its own way, got off to a pretty controversial start.
First came the news that the North and South Koreans were not going to walk together under a united Korean flag at the opening ceremony, something which they had done previously. Different issues resulted in this decision, including President Lee Myung-bak’s less than friendly view towards the North, and the tragic death of a South Korean tourist at the hands of a North Korean soldier.
As the decision to walk separately was made, a further problem arose. The clever chaps at Seoul Broadcasting decided to leak footage of the opening ceremony, which was in a Fort Knox like state of secrecy. This did nothing to help the popularity of South Korea in China, which was already teetering after a recent internet spat in which Koreans tried to claim that Chinese culture originated in Korea. Apparently, the latest in this on going war of words is that Confucius actually came from Korea (go figure that one out)!
Considering all of these hurdles, the Koreans were always going to be up against it, which manifested itself in the opening ceremony. As the Chinese crowd were getting into the night, they immediately began cheering all of the neighbouring countries (i.e. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Russia) and even cheered countries they just ‘liked’ (which strangely included both USA and Iraq!). The South Koreans were met with pure silence and a few jeers. Even Tony the Tiger doesn’t get that frosty. This was amplified ten-fold when the North Koreans walked out and were met with a giant roar of approval from the Beijing crowd.
But let’s be honest. In the Olympics, it’s the sport that matters, and in that sense Korea delivered, and delivered well. Korea have made steady progress in the Olympics, finishing 12th overall in 2000, 9th in 2004 and 7th in Beijing. Among their total 31 medals in Beijing, 13 were gold, creating overnight Korean sports celebs. Here I am going to discuss the competitors who I enjoyed watching the most, that is not to say the best competitors there, but just the ones who caught my eye, for whatever reason that may be. I will also point a quick bullet at the ones I would have preferred not to waste my time on. And yes to keep things fair and impartial I shall be discussing our Northern cousins as well!
There’s nothing that quite oozes femininity like weightlifting, and in these Olympics, Korea’s biggest star was indeed a weightlifter of the female species, for indeed they are more deadlier than the male. Here’s a conundrum: why is it that any male show of strength like World’s Strongest Man or the Highland Games can be about as interesting as watching paint dry, but as soon as it’s a woman trying to prove her mettle, it instantly becomes as intense as Russian Roulette? Jang Miran was not only the standout weightlifter for Korea, but also the standout athlete, with a gold medal and the breaking of two world records.
Swimming is not a sport that Korea would traditionally be associated with, but Park Taehwan did the business in the Water Cube, becoming Korea’s first ever gold medal winner in swimming. Park picked up the coveted gold in 400m freestyle and a silver in 200m, finishing second to Michael Phelps. Park was already a golden boy in Korea, with his giant physique, handsome looks and the fact that he’s still only 18. The medals will no doubt boost his status.
Although swimming brought new frontiers, Korea did win a gold medal in Badminton, a sport that they are far from novices at, but in the face of the Chinese, everyone falters. As luck would have it the Chinese didn’t make it to the final of the mixed doubles, and it was here that young lad Lee Yongdae shined along with partner Lee Hyojung. Although the veteran Hyojung was the back bone of the team, the wonder-boy Yongdae was the attacking difference. Yongdae’s powerful yet accurate overhead smash was almost unplayable, and proved the difference in the tense final. A gold medal in his first Olympics at the age of 19 has seen comparisons being made to badminton legend Park Joobong. Although extra pressure is never helpful, make no mistakes Lee Yongdae is the real deal, and I would put him top of the list of outstanding young discoveries. Book your badminton tickets for London 2012 now!
Korea certainly has a lot of young talent to look forward to, but in Beijing, the old guard could still graft with the best. Kim Kyung Ah, the table tennis veteran won bronze with the women’s team, but was the stand out player. Her defensive play is mesmerising to watch, and her cool mind makes her the coolest character on the block.
But by far the major attractions at these Olympics were the Men’s and Women’s Archery teams (below right), who both picked up gold. Although there was disappointment with Park Kyung Mo and Park Sung Hyun both loosing in the individual finals, the two later consoled each other by tying the knot! The media went simply couldn’t get enough of the ‘Cupid’s arrow’ gags. Archery is one of Korea’s national sports, having an illustrious history in it and excelling in these Olympics. It was also helped by the fact that the Korean fans turned the Olympic Green Archery Field into Seoul! This was where the Korean fans really turned out in numbers, and made the Archery look like World Cup Football. The women’s team and individual finals both against China were particularly heated affairs, and possibly the only time the host nation was out sung in the stands.
Archery is also the sport which featured my favourite North Korean athlete, Kwon Un Sil. Kwon finished fourth in the women’s individual, and approached her game like an assassin, which didn’t really help the North Korean stereotypes, but made entertaining viewing. The terminatrix displayed the steely sexiness of a Bond girl and her handling of 14 year old Mariana Avitia was nothing short of ruthless.
Perhaps the most popular achievement would be the gold that Korea won in possibly the last Baseball showing at the Olympics. Now if only I knew how the play the damn sport! Korea unsurprisingly took 4 gold medals in Taekwondo. England could learn a thing about doing well at sports they invent.
…and the disappointments
Olympics dreams can also turn into Olympics nightmares, and the Korean campaign was no different. Perhaps the biggest fall from grace was table tennis start Ryu Seung Min. Gold medallist in Athens, beating world number one Wang Hao in the final to claim the men’s individual title, Ryu got knocked out in the very first round in Beijing. Conspiracy theories of his Athens gold being somewhat of a fluke could not get any more justified.
If the Korean women’s handball team of 2004 were dramatised in the movie ‘Forever the Moment’, surely the 2008 movie would be ‘A Moment to Forget’. The Women’s Handball team won bronze but had a heart break moment in the semi-finals. They equalised in the dying seconds against Norway, which would have thrown the match into extra-time, only for the Norwegians to re-establish their lead in the dying mili-seconds. Although there was a huge protest from the Koreans that the ball had been thrown after the buzzer had gone, they would be hugely disappointed with their lapse in concentration. The judges however were less than enthusiastic when listening to the Korean’s defiance at the decision. Maybe if they were British Taekwondo fighters then the decision would have been reversed… Yes I said it!
The Men’s gymnastic team are slowly turning into the equivalents of the English football team. They have the resources and talents, but somehow still find a way to really mess things up enough to become the laughing stock of their continent. This wasn’t helped by the tragic hilarity that they suffered as every member of their team slipped off the parallel bars during the Men’s team tournament. One member slipping is an accident, two slipping is unfortunate, three is just downright embarrassing.
However perhaps the biggest flop on the peninsula has been North Korea’s Kim Jong Su, who after winning two medals in shooting failed a drugs test and had both medals stripped. Remember kids, just say no!
- Michael Phelps is Korean, and other old wives’ tales, Chosun Ilbo, 20 Aug 2008