[Viewpoint]The maturing of a nation

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[Viewpoint]The maturing of a nation

When Park Tae-hwan won a gold medal in the men’s 400-meter freestyle swimming at the 2008 Beijing Olympics on Aug. 10, his parents cried tears of joy, but Park glowed with a big smile. He probably still remembers the pain from his 2004 Athens Olympics disqualification for a false start in the men’s 400-meter preliminary heat, yet he showed no sign of this shadow weighing him down.

After finishing the 200-meter race on Aug. 12, Park shook hands with gold medalist Michael Phelps, again with a beaming smile on his face. He showed that a silver medalist can be extremely proud and happy.

In a press conference, Park said “it was an honor to compete [with Phelps].” He also said he was thrilled to set a new Asian record for the 200-meters.

We all know that he did his best. That is why we are satisfied when he said he was content. We applaud passionately for him. It really is a shame to say that it is “just” a silver medal, because a silver is as precious and worthy of pride as a gold medal.

Jin Jong-oh captured the gold in the men’s 50-meter pistol, and he too had a beautiful smile. It was not just because he won a great victory, however.

After winning the silver in the 10-meter air pistol on Aug. 9, Jin approached Pang Wei, the Chinese gold medalist, and shook his hand first. Jin’s smile shined brightly throughout the medal ceremony. He remained calm and sportsmanlike in such an intense competition and respected his rival’s victory. His attitude was fittingly rewarded with a gold medal three days later.

At the Olympics, tears and laughter intersect at every moment. And yet, there has been a change. The athletes have changed and we, the viewers, have also changed. The tearful ceremony of victory still remains, but Korean players are beginning to enjoy their victories with joy and confidence. It’s time to act like you’ve been there.

More fans are also now applauding silver medalists. The viewers no longer want a sports competition in which the only goal is to win. They are now enthusiastic about sports where players do their best.

The days when Koreans cried out of joy for a gold medal and cried out of regret for a silver medal have passed.

As I watch the Olympic Games, the bright faces of the players overlapped in my head with the words of Cha Bum-kun, who instilled a strong impression two years ago. He wrote about his son, Du-ri.

“For me, soccer was a battle that would be lost if I lost,” Cha Bum-kun wrote. “But for Du-ri, it is clearly different. For my son, soccer was his life and made him happy.”

The great Korean soccer player wrote that he had no time to respect others because he was so obsessed with the idea that he had to be the best. He wrote that he learned a lesson from the easy and composed attitude of his son, who always enjoyed the game.

It is undeniable that the current Korean athletes’ confidence, calm and cool are owed to the battles of their parents’ generation. Because of them, Korea achieved phenomenal economic growth, and because of them, the youngsters have the generosity to respect their rivals, regardless of victory or defeat.

It is a precious value that Koreans have come to embrace as our society has matured. Players enjoy the game for itself, and they try to challenge their limits and Korea’s limits.

Watching the calm attitudes of archery competitors who aim for the target without shaking, we have learned that confidence is a great asset. Koreans’ obsession with gold medals is slowly disappearing.

Yoon Jin-hee, who won a silver medal in the women’s 53-kilogram weightlifting, and Nam Hyun-hee, who won a silver in foil fencing by one point, were all confident.

Many Internet users also sent inspirational and heart-felt messages of support for Wang Ki-chun, who won a silver in judo despite suffering broken ribs and weightlifter Lee Bae-young, who demonstrated his fighting spirit until the end although he had leg cramps.

They also applauded Austrian judoka Ludwig Paischer, who approached Choi Min-ho and hugged him although the Korean had just defeated him in the judo final.

We had a glimpse of confidence that we can do even better when we are not obsessed with gold medals. We’ve learned that respecting rivals does not mean defeat, that cool comes from maturity. Those are the true gifts that this Olympics have given to Koreans.

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

by Lee Eun-ju
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