[Viewpoint]Off track

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[Viewpoint]Off track

Korea Athletics Federation president Shin Pil-ryeol has been feeling as gloomy as the late autumn recently. It has already been eight months since Daegu was chosen to host the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in 2011, but realistic preparations have not yet begun.
After all, the World Championships in Athletics is not just another sporting competition. It is one of the three biggest sporting events in the world, behind only the summer Olympics and World Cup soccer in terms of the attention it garners. In the Olympic Games, 47 gold medals are awarded in track and field alone, far more than any other sport. Athletics is the basic event where athletes can run, jump and throw.
Many citizens are still nostalgic about the emotional opening of the Seoul Olympics in 1988. We still remember the overwhelming excitement of the 2002 World Cup. Although another passionate event is coming to Daegu in only four years, we have not yet launched earnest preparations. After all, the best preparation for the championship is to discover and nurture our own talent. We do not have any star Korean athletes who can create thrills in the Daegu stadium. The infrastructure, such as the stadium and facilities, can be built in no time. We have successfully done that in the past.
However, the athletes cannot be made overnight. Imagine if Korea had been eliminated in the regional preliminary and could not play in the final round of the 2002 World Cup. Would so many people have come out in the streets and cheered for the players? You can’t expect to share in the excitement if you are not a part of the celebration.
Korean athletes are increasingly falling behind world-class athletes in track and field.
The difference is closest in the marathon. When Belayneh Dinsamo set a world record in 1988 at 2 hours 6 minutes and 50 seconds, Korean marathoners thought they could catch up to him someday.
Top Korean runners could then finish in about 2 hours and 8 minutes. However, as the world record in the men’s marathon fell to 2 hours and 5 minutes, and then 4 minutes, we have had to nearly give up.
Top foreign athletes run each 100 meters at an average of 17 seconds during the 43.195 kilometers of the race. Korean runners are not even close to that speed. Now, it is not uncommon for a photo finish in the marathon, just like in the shorter events. However, we can hardly find an athlete to finish at 2 hours and 9 minutes, let alone 2 hours and 8 minutes. Naturally, Shin’s frustration is growing.
One day before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Park Jeong-gi, then president of the Korea Athletics Federation, received a call from a self-proclaimed wizard.
At the time, Park was seeking a way to encourage marathoners, since it was the only track and field event in which Korea had any hopes for a medal. The wizard said he had a secret method to run the 42.195 kilometers in an hour. He claimed he could float in air. However, all he could do was to lift his buttocks on and off the floor on the spot, without moving an inch forward. Park later laughed about the fact that he was so desperate he went to meet the “wizard.”
Shin, who has been heading the federation for three years, is also chief executive of Samsung Electronics. He said, “When a company sets a goal, the entire organization gets involved to accomplish it. But we have not yet created a coordinated organization for the World Championships.” He must feel the same as Park did when he was preparing for the Olympics.
For more efficient preparations, an organization encompassing the government, the Korea Athletics Federation and the city of Daegu is needed. When a program to improve the competition is proposed, the organization can make it a policy. The athletes complain they are struggling to discover their talents. Schools no longer have physical tests or athletic meets, and gym classes are that in name only, so there is no way to know who is good at running and who has endurance. The federation is making efforts, sending promising runners to Kenya for training and inviting notable foreign coaches, but such efforts have obvious limits.
Let’s assume that no Korean athletes participate in the world championship at Daegu World Cup Stadium in four years. Not many Koreans are likely to come to see the event. Even if there are spectators, we cannot expect them to be passionate. Winning the right to host the event was hard enough. The government now needs to take action to make sure the championships is not just a festival for other countries.

*The writer is a deputy culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shin Dong-jae
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