[Viewpoint]Flourishing sports meccas

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[Viewpoint]Flourishing sports meccas

I have been writing a series titled “People who are more beautiful than flowers” in the Ilgan Sports every other week since March. The series features the touching stories of hidden sports talents that are not widely known by the public.

Last week, I wrote about Seol Dong-sik, the head coach of Seogwipo High School’s soccer team. Seol is the one who made Seogwipo, Jeju Island, a destination for soccer training. When he assumed the position at the high school in 1999, he paid attention to the island’s warm and quiet environment. He recommended that his fellow soccer team managers at middle and high schools come to Seogwipo for winter training. A few teams started their winter training camps in Seogwipo, and Seol did his best to accommodate their needs.

Just before the Korea-Japan World Cup in 2002, Guus Hiddink took the Korean national team to Seogwipo for training. Hiddink was deeply impressed with the natural environment and outstanding training and boarding facilities. Thenmayor of Seogwipo, Kang Sang-ju called Seol and suggested making the city a soccer training Mecca, promising all the assistance he could provide. Mayor Kang and Seol worked together to build soccer fields with both natural and artificial turf. Including the grounds to be completed by the end of the year, there will be 15 soccer fields. Last winter, over 120 soccer teams came to Seogwipo for training. Over 100 billion won ($97.2 million) is expected to be spent in the city every year for winter training camps and national soccer competitions in the spring and fall. If the city can attract professional clubs from Japan, China and Southeast Asia to hold their camps there, it will be able to enjoy even greater economic benefits.

Last winter, I went to Namhae, South Gyeongsang to attend the opening ceremony of the National College Soccer Competition. Namhae is indeed a pioneer of sports marketing among local autonomous government bodies. The people in Namhae successfully raised year-round green turf in 1996, and from 1999 to 2003, then-county commissioner Kim Du-gwan undertook an initiative to construct Namhae Sports Park. The county invested 38.5 billion won in a reclaimed area once full of reeds and created five natural turf soccer fields, artificial turf soccer fields and a baseball field, tennis courts and swimming pool.

At first, skeptics opposed the idea and thought that no one would come to the countryside to play sports. However, the mild climate and excellent facility attracted sports teams from around the country, and Namhae’s experiment with sports marketing became a great success. Thanks to the accomplishment, Kim was appointed to the post of Minister of Government Administration and Home Affairs under the Roh Moo-hyun Administration.

Lately, Namhae is, however, facing a crisis. Sports teams now complain that they will not come to Namhae again because of excessive cost, lack of hospitality and substandard food. The College Soccer Competition is to be held in Namhae this year after a fierce contest against Pohang. The organizers say that this is Namhae’s last chance. Namhae commissioner Jeong Hyeon-tae, who was elected in the June 4 by-election, is obviously under pressure. At a breakfast meeting, he promised that he would do his best to restore the reputation of Namhae as a sports Mecca and asked visitors to experience its hospitality.

A dark horse in sports is Gangjin, South Jeolla. The Joongang Ilbo’s June 17 issue had a major article titled “Why do 5,000 athletes go as far as Gangjin to train?” featuring soccer players, rugby players and cyclists. Gangjin County estimates that the economic impact from sports marketing is over 170 billion won this year. Gangjin had a late start in the race, having created a Sports Planning Team in June 2005. Gangjin County Commissioner Hwang Ju-hong says that the county’s appeals are friendly residents and civil servants, great food and various tourist attractions.

Seogwipo, Namhae and Gangjin are small local autonomous government units with populations of about 50,000. They are all based on agriculture and fishing. However, these quiet counties had opened their eyes to sports marketing early. Now they are waging a competition in good faith in the market of sports tourism. Tongyeong and Haman in South Gyeongsang and Gwangyang and Suncheon in South Jeolla are also getting ready to join the race. The sports tourism market is a “blue ocean” with little risk of pollution or labor issues and great potential for growth. Their success depends on friendly and sincere service as well as attractions and food. I hope every county becomes a winner in this race.

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

by Chung Young-jae
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