Korea reaches for the goldKorea, which is used to being one of the top 10 Olympic competitors in terms of gold medals won, fell short of that goal at the 2000 Sydney Games, where it picked up eight. For Athens, the team has set its sights on cracking the top 10 again. Korea’s best finish at the Olympics came when it hosted the Seoul Games in 1988, winning 12 golds ― enough to place fifth, in those days when there were fewer events. Finishing that close to the top seems unlikely in Athens, but Korea’s Olympic team hopes that with success in sports in which it’s got a strong history ― archery, for instance ―it can win as many as 13 golds.
Sports Illustrated has its doubts; the U.S. magazine recently predicted that Korea would win six golds, a statement that has ruffled feathers here. Time will soon tell who’s right. Meanwhile, here’s a look at Korea’s key contests, and the dates and times when you can watch them from home. (Some of the networks’ schedules were incomplete at press time.)
Korea’s shooting team has had some success in the past; the team won a silver medal at the Sydney Games in 2000. But there are gold medal hopes for Cheon Min-ho in the 10-meter men’s air rifle. Ranked second in the world, Cheon won the gold at June’s International Shooting Sports Federation World Cup in Milan. Slovakia’s Jozef Gonci and Hungary’s Peter Sidi are also thought to be strong contenders. In the women’s 10-meter air rifle, Korea’s eyes are on Seo Sun-hwa and Cho Eun-young, currently ranked 8th and 13th in the world.
Women’s 10-meter Air Rifle Qualification (Aug. 14): SBS, 5 p.m.; MBC, 5:10 p.m.; KBS 2, 5 p.m.
Men’s 10-meter Air Rifle Qualification (Aug. 16): SBS, 8:45 p.m.; KBS 1, 9 p.m.
Koreans have dominated this event for the past two decades, winning 11 of the last 20 golds awarded, as well as six silvers. Four gold medals are awarded, two for men and two for women, in individual performance and in team competition. Yun Mi-jin will try to repeat her accomplishments in 2000 in Sydney, where she won two golds; her strongest competition will likely come from within her own team. In Athens, Korean archery officials predict the Chinese will pose a threat to the Korean women in team competition, while Natalia Valeeva from Italy is considered the biggest obstacle in women’s individual competition. On the men’s side, the United States, Australia and Ukraine are thought to be serious contenders for top honors.
Women’s Team Gold Medal Match (Aug. 20):
SBS, 10:50 p.m.; KBS 1, 10 p.m.
Men’s Team Gold Medal Match (Aug. 21):
SBS, 9:45 p.m.; KBS 1, 10:10 p.m.
Fencing is one of only four sports that have been featured in every modern Olympics since 1896; Korea has only recently begun making its mark in the sport. At the Sydney Games in 2000, Kim Young-ho, 33, shocked the fencing world as the first Asian athlete to outduel the European powerhouses, clinching the gold in the men’s individual foil competition. For Athens, Choi Byeong-cheol, 22, has been groomed to continue that success in an event Korea hopes will become another “medal cow” it can milk for years to come. Italy’s Salvatore Sanzo and Andrea Cassara and China’s Wu Hanxiong are thought to be strong contenders for the gold.
Men’s Individual Foil Gold Medal Match (Aug. 17): SBS, 12:35 a.m.; KBS 1, midnight.
Lee Won-hee, who has established a record 48 consecutive wins in domestic competitions and abroad, besides winning the 2003 World Judo Championships in Osaka, Japan, is considered the man to beat in the under-73-kilogram class. Lee also won the Moscow Super A Tournament in January.
Since Feb. 2003, only one man has beaten Lee: Jimmy Pedro of the United States, who beat him in the Korea Cup final last December. Pedro is the 1999 world champion and 1996 Olympic bronze medalist who temporarily retired after a disappointing Sydney Games, in which he finished fifth. He’ll be the biggest obstacle for Lee, who has said that he is not interested in money or a medal so much as the sheer joy of winning with the maximum knockout ippon score. Competition will be from Aug. 14 to 20; one women’s and one men’s weight class will be decided each day, starting with the lighter weight classes.
Men’s Under-73-kilogram Gold Medal Competition (Aug. 16): SBS, 11:10 p.m.; KBS 1, 10 p.m.
Badminton is dominated by the Chinese; in the mixed doubles, however, Korea’s Kim Dong-moon and Ra Kyung-min are the top-ranked team. This duo, riding a 14-win streak in international competitions, is out to settle an old score ― at the Sydney Games they lost early in the qualifying rounds to China’s doubles team, Zhang Jun and Gao Ling, who went on to win the gold. For the Koreans, it was a heartbreaking loss. The same Chinese team is currently ranked second in the world, and is expected to square off against the Koreans again.
Mixed Doubles Gold Medal Match (Aug. 19):
SBS, 9:25 p.m.; KBS 1, 12:20 a.m.
Like all the other table tennis competitors, Korea will have to face the Great Wall of China in Athens. Korea’s best hope for a medal rests with the men’s doubles team, Lee Cheol-seung and Ryu Seung-min. The duo finished fourth in Sydney, knocked out early by the Chinese. Ryu is also ranked third in the International Table Tennis Federation’s individual’s world rankings, and has a shot at winning a medal in men’s individual competition. China’s Wang Liqin, Ma Lin and Wang Hao are currently ranked in the top four. Since the 1988 Seoul Games, when Korea won gold in men’s singles and women’s doubles, Korea has won a total of eight bronzes, including one in women’s doubles in Sydney.
Men’s Doubles Gold Medal Match (Aug. 21):
SBS, 7:45 p.m.; KBS 1, 7 p.m.
Before the Soviet Union dissolved, it dominated international wrestling; today, athletes from Russia and the former Soviet satellite states are still the strongest competitors in the sport. Korea’s Mun Ui-jae, 29, has a chance for a gold in the freestyle, 84-kilogram weight class, in which Russia, Cuba and the United States are seen as the obstacles. Kim In-seob, 31, who won the silver in Sydney in 2000 despite an injury, is another candidate for whom the team has high hopes, in the 66-kilogram Greco-Roman category. The Athens Games should be the last chance for these aging warriors, whose stamina is the key to their medal hopes.
Men’s Freestyle 84-kilogram Gold Medal Match (Aug. 29): SBS, 12:55 a.m.
Men’s Greco-Roman 66-kilogram Gold Medal Match (Aug. 26): SBS, 12:55 a.m.
In taekwondo, a total of eight gold medals, four for each gender, are up for grabs; however, each country can only participate in two weight classes for each gender (a rule aimed at curbing Korea’s domination of the competition).
Korea has a chance at a medal in every contest in which it’s participating. Moon Dae-sung, an athlete with exceptional left kicks, is scheduled to compete in the over-80-kilogram class. Moon failed to make the national team for the Sydney Games, but has since rebounded, winning a gold at the 2002 Asian Games.
Hwang Gyeong-seon, 18, the first high- school athlete ever selected for the national team, will face off in the under-67-kilogram class. She is little known on the international stage, which could work in her favor, as opponents might have trouble trying to figure out her fighting style. Jang Ji-won, 25, is competing in the women’s under-57-kilogram class, while in the men’s under-68 kilogram class, Song Myeong-seob, 20, competes. Song has to face Hadi Saei from Iran, who has never lost a match to a Korean.
Men’s Over-80-kilogram Gold Medal Match (Aug. 29): SBS, 12:55 a.m.
Women’s Under-67-kilogram Gold Medal Match (Aug. 29): SBS, 12:55 a.m.
Both Korea’s men’s and women’s hockey teams are forces to be reckoned with. The men’s team won the silver at Sydney in 2000; 10 players from that team are back for Athens.
The women’s team came home from Sydney emptyhanded, but has a strong history behind it; it won Olympic silver in 1988 and 1996, and won four consecutive gold medals from the 1986 Seoul Asian Games to the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games.
The International Hockey Federation has ranked the Korean women’s team eighth and the men’s team fourth. Australia is the two-time defending champion in women’s hockey.
Women’s Gold Medal Match (Aug. 27): SBS, 11 a.m.
Men’s Gold Medal Match (Aug. 28): SBS, 2:35 a.m.
At the Sydney Games, Korea’s women’s handball team failed to win a medal for the first time since Los Angeles in 1984 (since then it had won two golds and two silvers).
But recent performances suggest it might be headed back to glory.
In the last Women’s World Championship, in 2003, Korea finished third behind France and Hungary; in exhibition games against European countries in May, the team managed to win five games and played to a draw against Denmark, which had won the gold in Sydney.
Women’s Gold Medal Match (Aug. 29): SBS, 3:50 p.m.
For the Athens Games, North Korea is sending a delegation of 77 athletes and supporting staff members to compete in nine events.
In seven trips to the summer Olympics, North Korea has won a total of eight gold medals, six silvers and 14 bronzes. At Sydney, it won one silver and three bronze medals.
The best-known North Korean athlete is Kye Sun-hui, who is trying for a third Olympic medal in judo. She debuted at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where she won a gold medal in the under-48-kilogram class.
by Brian Lee