[SPORTS]Korea’s sports pride is far too narrowEvery nation has its own sporting ego, a definite competitive identity linked to the country’s culture and history. For each country, there are sports it is absolutely necessary to win at, and others where nothing much is expected. The English feel that they ought to triumph in almost everything because they laid down the rules for many sports (soccer, tennis, rugby, cricket), but they’ll settle for losing honorably. The Brazilians have to win the soccer World Cup every time, but don’t care too much about anything else.
Koreans, on the other hand, need to win big in international competition at everything. In the Olympics they count gold medals obsessively. Losses in soccer are body blows to national pride. Korean baseball players in the United States are regarded as representatives of Korea, their success important for collective self-esteem. Every victory by a Korean golfer is received as a vindication of the strivings of a whole people.
Such obsession with international success is understandable given Korea’s recent history. Korea’s self-image has taken a battering in the last hundred years or so as the peninsula has been tossed about like a toy between foreign powers. Unable to establish status politically because of the much larger size of its neighbors, China, Russia and Japan, Korea has sought to impress economically and, in the last two decades, through sports.
As everybody knows, this obsession with sporting excellence began in earnest relatively recently, with the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This was the moment Korea climbed out of its shell and yelled at the world, “Here we are!” To be seen to have put on a magnificent games was essential for communal pride.
And that beginning explains why Korean self-image is so tied up with international sporting achievement, and even with the successful staging of international tournaments. 1988 is still imprinted firmly in the Korean psyche as well as in its relics, such as Olympic Park.
It also explains why the 2002 World Cup seems to have been so much more important for Koreans than for Japanese, and why Koreans flooded into the streets in amazing numbers to watch and celebrate their victories. For Koreans the event became an expression of national solidarity, a proof of how they really do have the ability to beat European powers such as Italy, Spain and Portugal. The increasing outpouring of emotion after each successive victory demonstrated just how psychologically scarred Koreans have been by their century of perceived oppression by foreigners, and how they needed to repair the damage in their own minds, if not in anybody else’s.
There is also a clear link between the Ohno incident in the 2002 Winter Olympics and the current anti-Americanism, especially prevalent among the young. While everybody else ignored it, Koreans felt cheated as a nation when their speed skater, Kim Dong-Sung, was disqualified after crossing the line first in the 1500 meters, and the American Apolo Anton Ohno was awarded the gold medal. Whatever the truth of the matter, in the minds of Koreans this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, only the last in a long series of affronts to national pride. And that this humiliation occurred in an international sporting arena made the loss of face all the more impossible to bear. This was the spark that ignited the present mood of discontent with the United States.
The connection Koreans make between international image and athletic achievement has created a curious sporting environment here. Anybody who has attended a Korean baseball game recently will know that attendance is way down, in spite of the fact that tickets are inexpensive. The soccer K-League continues to sputter along without really capturing the public’s imagination even in the wake of Korea’s amazing achievements at last year’s World Cup. And domestic leagues and competitions in other sports have an even lower profile.
It seems that Korea’s entire sporting attention is focused on staging and winning international events. The biggest story in Korean sports this year has been the narrow defeat of Pyeongchang in its bid to stage the 2010 Winter Olympics. The loss to Vancouver stirred far more controversy and debate than any match played in the K-League this season. This is completely dissimilar to the situation in Europe or North America, where domestic leagues are followed with as much, if not more, devotion than international games.
I guess it all boils down to national pride. For better or worse, Koreans have somehow come to equate sports with international recognition, and all athletic activity in Korea is affected by this fact. Every movement of a sports star representing Korea on the international stage attracts attention, while the efforts of those back at home go unnoticed.
Let’s just hope the next decade brings a broadening of focus in Korean sports so that there is something for fans to follow even when it is not a World Cup or Olympic year.
* The writer is an associate professor at Ewha Womans University.
by Jeremy Garlick