Wrestling here struggles to take holdIn sport, there are always moments one remembers vividly for whatever reason. I still recall walking out on the court for my first high school tennis match.
How well do I remember it? Actually, a bit too well because that day I met the top-seeded player of the opposing team in a singles match. Not that I was the top dog at my school. Oh no, it just happened that our No. 1 and No. 2 were lying in bed at home with the flu. And our No. 3 had just jumped ship to the coed swimming team because he swore he found the prettiest girl on earth over there. So before I knew it, No. 4 was next in line and that happened to be me.
Anyway, there I was standing on the baseline awaiting the onslaught. Desperate, I looked to my coach to save me from the abyss that I was about to descend into. Coach gave me this encouraging you-can-do-it-look. There it was! The not-so-official confirmation that I was going to be taken apart piece by piece that afternoon.
I won only one game in two sets that day. Amid the whipping, I still remember winning that first game after losing the first eight in a row. It was a bittersweet moment.
For Kim Dong-wook, a professional ssireum or traditional Korean wrestler, the thrilling experience of a first-time victory must have been bittersweet as well. Kim won his first title ever Saturday during the 2003 Serajaembae. And that victory came in his ninth year as a professional! You‘ve got to have lots of determination and passion to continue grinding your teeth for nine years.
In a post-game interview, an emotional Kim urged the public to support the sport of ssireum. Considering it was his first title, and he could have commented on how wonderful it felt, shows the sad state of this sport.
Sure, the stands were full, but only because New Year’s Day on the lunar calendar is the biggest time for ssireum. Usually, far fewer people show up at a bout, if they come at all. And if you took a careful look into the stands you might think a reunion of the Class of 1950 was under way.
There is nothing wrong with people watching older competitors like Jack Nicklaus swing a golf club, but when more than half of the fans at a sports event are old-timers, there is a problem. What are you going to do when all the old-timers are gone? Give out free tickets at a retirement home?
Ssireum competitors only manage to get themselves on television about twice a year. Kim has made one appearance so far, which means the next chance he’ll be on the tube ― provided he is lucky enough to win ― is nine months away on Chuseok, Korea’s Thanksgiving.
During the 48-day season, a pool of about 40 professional athletes try to keep this traditional sport alive without a stadium meant just for ssireum. Sumo wrestling in Japan has twice the number of matches as Korean wrestling has, with around 800 registered wrestlers.
What will it take to raise this sport to the next level? I don't know. There are many problems I could talk about, but I’d run out of space. What I know is that the next time a ssireum player wins a title for the first time it might be his last as well. Unless something happens very fast.
by Brian Lee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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