Can Korea Keep Up Its Olympic Success?

      August 13, 2012 12:48

      Korea achieved bigger success than expected at the 2012 London Olympics, concluding its run in fifth place overall with 13 gold, eight silver, and seven bronze medals. Korea's goal was to win at least 10 gold medals and finish in the top 10.

      The medal hunt started slowly, but with multiple gold in archery, shooting, fencing, and judo, Korea matched its success in Beijing four years ago in terms of the total number of gold medals won. The fifth-place finish was the highest since 1988, when it came fourth.

      But some aspects still deserve reflection. Medals mostly came from a small number of disciplines, and big-name athletes who have been prominent for years performed poorly. This year's success does not guarantee that Korea will enjoy same triumph in Rio de Janeiro in four years unless it nurtures young athletes in various fields.

      Korea also needs to end its concentration on a handful of disciplines. Since wrestler Yang Jung-mo gave Korea its first gold medal in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Korea has won gold in four to eight different disciplines in each subsequent Olympics. Korea picked up gold in archery and taekwondo in all four Olympic Games since Sydney in 2000. But it won medals of any color in just nine sports for these four successive Olympics since 2000.

      During the 2012 Olympic Games, Korean athletes showed new possibilities in the disciplines in which Korea has been relatively obscure. From left, gymnast Son Yeon-jae, race walker Park Chil-sung, weightlifter Kim Min-jae, synchronized swimmers Park Hyun-sun and Park Hyun-ha, fencer Kim Ji-yeon, gymnast Yang Hak-seon and shooter Kim Jang-mi

      In London, Korea's medal race was greatly helped by shooting (three gold and two silver), archery (three gold and one bronze), fencing (two gold, one silver, and three bronze), and judo (two gold and one bronze). Korea came top in shooting thanks to double gold medalist Jin Jong-oh and Kim Jang-mi. It was second in fencing after Italy, and third in judo, which was better than the sport's birthplace Japan. But it still has no hope in more traditional disciplines such as track and field.

      The current crop is showing signs of falling off. Jang Mi-ran, the silver medalist in Athens and gold medalist in Beijing in the +75 kg category in women’s weightlifting, finished fourth in her last Olympics appearance. Sa Jae-hyouk, the gold medalist in Beijing in men's 77 kg weightlifting, was unable to finish as he sustained an injury during the competition, and Korea walked away without a medal in weightlifting in London. More serious problem is that there are no young athletes who are capable of replacing these established weightlifters.

      Song Dae-nam, 33, who won gold in the men's -90 kg judo, has already announced his retirement. Oh Sang-eun, 35, Joo Sae-hyuk, 32, and Ryu Seung-min, 30, the men’s table tennis trio who won silver medal in the team event -- the only medal Korea won in table tennis in London -- are all in their 30s and ready to think about retirement.

      Korea succeeded in winning a swimming medal in two successive Olympics thanks to Park Tae-hwan's two silver medals in the men's 200-m and 400-m freestyle, but Park was the only swimmer who qualified for the final, and no new Korean record was set during the Olympics. If Park decides not to continue until the 2016 Olympics, Korea will once again become obscure in the world of swimming.

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