Park Tae-hwan Is Too Young to Give Up

After failing to advance to the finals in the 400-m and 200-m freestyle competitions of the FINA World Championships in Rome, swimming sensation Park Tae-hwan said, "I couldn't even have my own coach because of factional strife in the swimming community. I was really hurt by that." He added it was too tough for him to be in the nation's spotlight and to shoulder the public's expectations. Koreans are saddened to see their pride and joy, also known as "Marine Boy," lose focus and suffer so much just a year after he beamed with confidence as he clasped his gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

After the Beijing Olympics, Park's training was split between the national squad and a special team organized just for him by SK Telecom, the swimmer's sponsor. But the special team did not even have a coach, because it was difficult to find one who could match the caliber of the world-class athlete. Park must have been under a lot of stress over the bickering that went on in the Korean swimming community about who should be his personal coach. Public expectations compounded Park's stress. "The weight I felt ahead of the championships in Rome was more than double what I felt at the time of the Beijing Olympics."

A countless number of challenges and opportunities lie in store for the 20-year old. He will only be 23 even after he competes in the Guangzhou Asian Games next year, the 2011 Shanghai Swimming Championships and the 2012 London Olympics. U.S. swimming champion Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals in Beijing, said he intends to compete in London, when he will be 27, and even until he turns 30. We must not let Park give up this soon.

National team coach Roh Min-sang, who trained Park, said, "Senior officials in the swimming community must take responsibility for failing to help Park." Most importantly, he should not be compelled to train overseas, moving from one location to another, only to join the national team just before a major tournament. Either a flexible training program needs to be established between the national squad and the SK Telecom team, or he must be allowed to choose whether to train overseas full time under an internationally renowned coach or stick with the national squad. 

Park flew to Rome two days before his teammates left Seoul and posed for a glossy fashion magazine spread. It was part of an advertising deal for a foreign clothing  manufacturer. No matter how one looks at it, that is not something he should have been doing with an important match just days away. But nobody in Korea's swimming community was willing to criticize the boy wonder. Phelps, who is 24, is still shadowed by his coach Bob Bowman, who has been teaching him since he was 11 years old. For the past 13 years, Phelps has complained about Bowman, but follows the coach's advice and instructions. Park needs to take a look at the world-class athletes whose spectacular fall from the top was attributable to their inability to control themselves.

Korea's sports community must prepare itself to manage star athletes more consistently if it wants to produce national athletic heroes like Australian swimming star Dawn Fraser, who won gold medals at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics during her prolific career.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jul. 29, 2009 12:14 KST