[SPORTS VIEW]Gold medals get you more than honorDo you know what the biggest reward is for Korean men who win medals at the Olympics or the Asian Games? It's not the honor. It's not the points you get making you eligible for a pension. It's not the spotlight. It's not the lucrative sponsorship deals. And it's not a spot on a game show with a beautiful actress next to you. All of these benefits pale beside the best prize: an exemption from military service.
Under the current rules, a man who gets at least a bronze medal at the Olympics or a gold at the Asian Games gets a free pass on his military service.
Recently, the government extended the rule a bit to give exemptions to the members of the national soccer team, after they advanced to the semifinals of the World Cup. When the moment the special decree was declared, I can only imagine the sigh of relief they breathed. In contrast, imagine the weeping the members of the more recent national team did, the ones who failed to take the gold at the Asian Games. I feel for them. I really do. Trust me, I know what kind of emotions they must have experienced.
I still remember when I got my draft notice at home. I couldn't speak All I could do was sit and stare. Eventually I called a few friends and asked them to buy me a drink.
Even though I served my 26 months of active duty (you heard me, that's active duty) in the army, I'm still not mad or envious when athletes are allowed to avoid it. After all, it's good karma, right?
In Korea, getting an exemption from military service is so special that a man who gets one is often called a "son of God." Think about it -- 26 months is not a short time, especially for athletes that don't have much time to prove themselves.
All in all, about 50 athletes became "sons of God" by succeeding in the last Asian Games. Still, some won gold but won't get the get-out-of-the-army-free card: Athletes who are now in the army don't get the exemption. They still have to complete their 26 months. Dead or alive! Oh, and don't forget the five-star army chow that comes with it.
But the fate of these unlucky athletes could change. Public opinion supports them, and a final decision by the government is pending.
Nevertheless, if the reason for providing this special treatment is that the medalists lifted Korea's reputation, what about people who boost the country's image in nonathletic ways? What about student winners at the International Mathematical Olympiad?
Something needs to be done to make army service a less miserable prospect. But that's another story.
The big story in sports right now is baseball. Starting today, the Kia Tigers and the LG Twins will slug it out in the second round of the playoffs to determine who faces the Samsung Lions in the Korean Series. On paper, Kia holds the upper hand -- the Tigers clobbered the Twins during the regular season, winning 13 out of 18 contests. But it's the playoffs, so anything can happen. The underdogs LG proved that this week by besting Hyundai in the first round.
"Sports View" appears Thursdays and Sundays in the JoongAng Daily.
by Brian Lee