[Viewpoint]We wuz robbedWhenever I think about Korea’s handball players, I cannot help but feel sorry for them. At home, they do not get much attention because handball is not popular.
When they participate in big international events, such as the Olympics, they have a hard time competing against the bulky European players. Despite those handicaps, they have made great achievements.
Korean people remember the deep emotion they felt from the fierce fighting spirit Korean women handball players displayed in the final against Denmark in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Although they fought well against the bigger Danish players, the play ended in a draw. The contest was decided on penalty throws. Unfortunately, the Danes won but people praised the Koreans for their hard-fought effort and called the silver medals they won “the most valuable medals.”
Recently, the Korean men’s national handball team has suffered from unfair decisions by referees from Middle Eastern countries in a series of international contests.
At the Asian Men’s Handball Championship held in Japan last week, Korea failed to win a ticket for the 2008 Beijing Olympics because of the biased decisions from those referees.
Now, there is no other way left for the Korean players but to participate in the qualification matches again for the world championship in May next year.
I suspect the unfair decisions of these referees are due to the clout of the chairman of the Asia Handball Federation, a member of Kuwait’s ruling family, who has a complete hold on the federation.
Since the president of the International Handball Federation, an Egyptian, was elected with the full support of the Middle Eastern countries, I don’t think it would do any good for the Korean team to file a complaint against the Asian federation to the international body.
This was, perhaps, why Korean handball lovers staged a protest rally at the Kuwait Embassy in Seoul.
At the Asian Games last year in Qatar, the Korean national handball team failed to win a medal because it was beaten by Qatar, which ranked two notches below Korea due to biased decisions from the Middle Eastern referees.
At that time, Korean coach Park Do-heon was so angry he expressed his displeasure by pushing the referee who made the biased decision and kicking a chair.
When it comes to handball, Korea is regarded as the strongest country in Asia. However, it is suffering from inhospitality.
Until the early 1990s, Korea had not been treated badly by the referees’ decisions.
Kim Chong-ha, the president of the Korea Handball Federation and the vice president of the Asia Handball Federation, had been very active in international sports diplomacy and played a role in protecting Korean sports teams participating in major international sporting events from unfair treatment.
Now that Kim has left the scene, the initiative of the Asian handball federation is in the hands of Middle Eastern countries and other member countries have little say.
Gymnastics is more or less in the same situation.
Yang Tae-yeong, who demonstrated perfect gymnastic skills, failed to get a gold medal because of the unfair judgment of referees at the Athens Olympics. Although three years have passed since then, not much has changed.
It is not easy for Korean players to win a medal in gymnastics because of the unfriendliness of influential European referees.
In contrast, Japan and China rarely get disadvantaged due to the unfavorable decisions of referees.
I believe it is because they have already positioned a fair number of their own countrymen in the International Gymnastics Federation’s technical committee, which exercises almost absolute influence over referees.
Korean gymnastics has a 70-year history, but it does not have a single member on the technical committee.
In sports, of course, the most important thing is playing ability, but that is not everything.
The support of sports diplomacy also matters.
The reason Pyeongchang lost the right to host the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, Russia was mainly due to the strong backing from President Vladimir Putin.
However, the absence of veteran sports diplomats in Korea is also an important reason for Pyeongchang’s failure.
Meanwhile, Daegu won the right to host the International Athletics Championship in 2011.
It was possible due to a man named Park Jung-ki, as well as the thorough preparations of the Daegu city government and its citizens.
The International Association of Athletics Federation has 212 member countries, more than the United Nations.
The IAAF council is comprised of 28 members, including the secretary general, and Park is one of the five most influential council members.
He has been a council member since 1991 and was elected for the fifth time last month, with the largest number of votes.
Recently he expressed his wish that someone younger should succeed him before he gets too old.
A few days ago, Park Yong-sung, the president of the International Judo Federation and a member of the International Olympic Committee, resigned from both posts due to an organized campaign to expel him by the European federation.
He has greatly contributed to the elevation of the status of Korean judo in world sports, but stepped down from the international stage. Now, in Korea, only one IOC member is left: Lee Kun-hee.
Already, there are voices worried about the absence of veteran sports diplomats as the Beijing Olympics nears.
I hope the government gets more interested in fostering competent sports diplomats and providing them with the necessary support.
This is necessary in order to get good results from the Beijing Olympics next year and also for the sake of Pyeongchang’s third attempt to host the Winter Olympic Games, in 2018.
*The writer is a deputy culture and sports news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Dong-jae