Tracing korea’s olympic gloryThe history of South Koreans’ participation in the Summer Olympic Games mirrors the country’s turbulent history, from the pains of colonialism to the post-independence push toward modernization.
Except for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Korea has sent athletes to every Olympic Games since 1932. After the country was divided, North Korea began participating in the Olympics in Munich in 1972.
The Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1932 were Korea’s first ― although, under colonial rule, the athletes had to display a Japanese flag.
Marathon runner Sohn Kee-chung became the country’s first gold medalist on Aug. 9, 1936, in Berlin. Mr. Sohn’s excitement at the podium was lukewarm at best, however, because Japan’s national anthem, rather than Korea’s, was being played.
It wasn’t until 1948, at the London Olympics, that Korean athletes bore their own national flags on their uniforms. There, 52 athletes competed in seven sports and won two bronze medals. Korea came in 24th in the medal count out of 59 countries competing in London.
The first gold medal after independence came at the Montreal Olympics in 1976; Yang Jung-mo won a gold for freestyle wrestling at 62 kilograms (136.5 pounds). After that, Korea began ascending the ladder in the world of sports. By 1976, Korea was 19th out of 88 countries in medal standings. It rose to 10th out of 140 in Los Angeles in 1984.
The Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988 were Korea’s time to shine. The International Olympic Committee chose Seoul over Nagoya as the host city for the 24th Olympic Games, by a vote of 52 to 27 in Baden-baden, West Germany, on Sept. 30, 1981.
Many people worried about a divided Korea hosting an international event, especially after the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and the Soviet Union’s boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games four years later. North Korea also decided to sit out in 1988.
The Seoul Games turned out to be a phenomenal success. More than 8,000 athletes from 159 countries came to Seoul, producing 33 world records and 227 Olympic records. Korea came in fourth in the total medal count: 12 gold medals, 10 silvers and 11 bronzes.
The Barcelona Olympics was another high point for Korea, with 12 gold medals. Hwang Young-jo fulfilled his dream of winning a gold medal in the marathon, the first marathon gold for Korea in 56 years.
Reflecting Korea’s rising status in the sports world, taekwondo was selected as an exhibition sport in 1996 and cemented as a competition sport in 2000. Korea came in 12th in the medal count in Sydney in 2000, taking eight golds, 10 silvers and 10 bronzes. History was also made at the Sydney Olympics, as North and South Korean athletes marched together under a single flag.
Despite their accomplishments, Korean athletes who won medals at the Olympics weren’t always treated as well as they are today. In the early years, there was no financial compensation for Olympic medal winners. Only in 1975 did the government establish a pension for athletes.
“There was a time when medal recipients could hardly expect to be treated to a dinner from the government, though I took pride in winning a medal for my country,” said Kim Sung-jip, who won a bronze in weightlifting’s middleweight class in 1948.
by Kang Hye-ran