Returning to teach some old tricks to sports' young dogsFor sports stars who are used to receiving hundreds of fan letters a day and having cameras follow them the minute they get out of bed, it is hard to leave the spotlight. But once these stars do leave and adjust to normal lives, it is often difficult to go back to the spotlight.
In spite of knowing the difficulties ahead, two superb athletes are attempting comebacks the table tennis star Yu Nam-gyu, 35, and wrestling's biggest small-man, Sim Gwon-ho, 31.
When asked what the reaction of their juniors would be, the faces of the two grew troubled. Given the rigid hierarchies in Korean sports between juniors and seniors, the addition of someone so much older and so highly honored could could create problems. After all, there are only so many slots available for athletes on national teams.
Sim broke the silence and said, "No senior athlete would want to block a fellow athlete's future. But I strongly believe that my returning to the mat will stimulate others. I'm sure of that, in fact."
Actually, there are more than a few people who thought Sim's return was a bad idea. His critics didn't think it was reasonable to come back from retirement after winning wrestling's four "Grand Slams" (in Korea, that's the International Championpionships, the Olympic Games, the Asia Championships and the Asian Games).
It was at last year's International Championships in Hungary that Sim says the comeback occurred to him. "I shook hands with the winner who had beaten all the Korean athletes, and I felt something like an alarm go off inside of me. You can determine a wrestler's ability just by shaking hands." Sim thought that not being able to beat such a contestant and losing the title was a disgrace. That was when Sim decided he wanted to stimulate and influence his juniors, those athletes who came back from the competition depressed and without any confidence left.
After announcing his comeback late last month, he has met with junior athletes a few times. Even though Sim felt uncomfortable about coming back at first, he now feels assured that his reappearance has given the younger wrestlers the "Sim Gwon-ho effect." He says the intensity of their weight training has increased at least 10 percent, along with their spirits, which are now higher than at any time since his retirement.
"If I had thought of defeat, I would never have come back," Sim said. "But I would be more than happy if the junior athletes defeated me and were selected to represent Korea at the Asian Games."
What Yu felt toward those athletes younger than him was similar to what Sim went through. Plus, Yu was more worried because he is the coach of Korea's team for the Busan Asian Games in September. Still, Yu's concern for the program's future was more important. "I am more than willing to stand behind the young men," Yu says. "But since I'm back, I also want to be an athlete they are not ashamed of."
The gold medal winner in table tennis singles at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Yu said he plans to enter the professional leagues abroad. He would like to go to countries like Japan, France and Germany where professional table tennis is popular. Another reason he wants to go abroad is because he wants to be less of a burden to other table tennis players. He also wishes to show the young athletes that they can continue to excel in the sport even after they have turned 30.
These two past champions not only care about their sports, but also about who will follow them for Korea. "We just hope that people understand that our comebacks are not due to narrow-minded selfishness," Yu says. "They should think of it as a new jolt from some old hands."
by Jeon Jin-bae