Asian Winter Games full of surprisesMy mother is not a sport buff. I guess it’s fair to say that she is an average mother who gets her sports information, if she gets it anywhere, from the television, but only if she happens to be watching the news. To ask her to explain a rule in, say, baseball, would be too much. I once tried to explain to her why pitchers try so hard to serve up strikes and on a good outing throw about 100 pitches. After half an hour of hearing my lecture, she said to me, “Wouldn’t that hurt? Their arms must be ready to fall off from all that throwing.”
After that I never bothered.
Curiously, my mother does know athletes’ names. Cha Doo-ri, a member of the World Cup gang, used to be her favorite. I guess all the TV ads must have helped her to make a connection with soccer. For a time, whenever TV featured a glimpse of a Korean soccer player, she would always say how good Cha Doo-ri was. Never mind that Cha Doo-ri is playing in Germany and that none of his games is broadcast. But that’s just my mother.
Since Saturday, her new hero is Ahn Hyun-soo, the short track skater who brought home three gold medals in the fifth Asian Winter Games in Aomori, Japan. But I bet his name will be a lot shorter on her memory circuit than Cha Doo-ri’s.
Korea did well in the Games by placing second overall with 28 medals, thanks largely to our short track and speed skating athletes. But winter sports athletes shine only when they come home with gold medals. And even then a couple of interviews is typically all they get. No mega sponsorships or commercials for them. No parades in front of city hall. For them, most likely at the end of this week, it’s back to basics. They have to grind their teeth for another couple of years to get any kind of small spotlight. At least speed skating and short track athletes have it much better, since they enjoy systematic support from a government that considers them strategic assets for the Winter Olympics. If you hear any stories about Winter Games’ athletes, you’ll think Korea has a storyline as good as the Jamaican bobsled team that made it to the Olympics.
Now what do the likes of Kang Chil-gu, Lee Dong-gun and Kim Mee-yon have in common? Answer: They are all athletes who led anonymous lives until they brought home gold medals in ski jumping and curling.
Take for example, Korea’s entire ski jumping team. After clinching the men’s team gold medal at the Asian Winter Games, Kang Chil-gu mentioned how he was afraid that ski jumping might disappear from future competitions Korea enters had they come home empty-handed. Indeed, that on the entire Korean peninsula only seven people are registered as ski jumping athletes says much about the state of the sport. I guess having only one ski jumping slope to practice on since 1996 does not help much either.
So what can you say when this rag-tag team beats a world class level team from Japan -- on their own turf? A Japan team, I might add, has a pool of more than 1,000 athletes to choose from, with 10 ski jumping hills that meet international standards.
Those ski jumpers are our true heroes. In fact, it’s time my mother learned their names.
by Brian Lee