Full calendar in sports yearThis year, Korea will have an opportunity to take a stroll on the international stage and see how well it measures up with other countries in a variety of sporting events.
First up is the Torino Winter Olympics, which kicks off on Feb. 10 in Sicily. The Korean squad will comprise about 50 athletes, but its emphasis is on short track speed skating, where for several years Korea has kept its edge. Nevertheless, marred by scandals over the last year in which athletes refused to participate in training, citing abuses by their coaches, it remains to be seen how effective the team will be.
The following month will see 16 teams playing in the World Baseball Classic. Korea will field a team that consists mostly of players from the American major league, but also includes players like Lee Seung-yeop, the country’s self-crowned “home run king of Asia,” who plays in Japan. With the American team obviously occupying a class of its own, Korea will most likely have to fight for second place, assuming that Cuba is unable to participate in the competition. Whether taking second will give some players enough leverage to avoid military service is debatable, although a victory surely wouldn’t hurt their chances of escaping boot camp.
But what will perhaps be the most hotly debated issue here, at least until June, is how the national soccer squad will fare in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. There is a lot at stake: Korea has to prove that even without a home field advantage it can play with the big boys and is more than just a regional powerhouse. Italian and Spanish soccer fans have still not forgotten the narrow defeat of their teams at the 2002 World Cup, in what some believe were wins by the Koreans due to botched calls by the refs, or what some suggested was part of a conspiracy to advance one of the co-hosts as far as possible in the competition.
A successful run will open doors for more South Korean players to play abroad and will prove that the 2002 fourth-place finish was no fluke. Here too, a similarly powerful performance could give the players a ticket out of the dreaded military service, but that’s something I would call a rather long shot.
Capping the year in December will be the Doha Asian Games. Apart from the medals, how to launch a unified inter-Korean team will be the biggest issue. With less than a year left to negotiate the issue, a unified team is still possible, but sports has been used time and time again as a political tool in inter-Korean relations, and a slew of variables could affect the outcome.
All in all, sports fans here will have an opportunity to witness the public’s passion when it comes to international games, something that is somehow missing in the domestic leagues.
by Brian Lee