Korean athletes excel in archery and taekwondo and regularly win medals in these sports. In the Paralympic Games, there is also a sport in which Koreans do well. That sport is Boccia, which is played by athletes with cerebral palsy. The sport was included in the 1988 Seoul Paralympics for the first time and Korea has since won four gold medals in the event. In this year’s Paralympic Games, which are being held in Beijing now, Park Keon-woo won a gold medal.
The goal of the game is to throw leather balls, painted red or blue, as close as possible to the target ball, which is white. An individual or a team that has thrown more balls close to the white ball wins. A player is allowed to hit a rival’s ball with his own to move it farther away from the white. A player must have good concentration and talent.
Boccia is much more popular in Europe than in Korea, but Korea is still good at the sport.
One of the reasons is balls. The balls for boccia are made of leather and filled with plastic beads. Balls are not mass-produced and are manufactured by hand.
In Korea, there is only one person who makes them, Lee Deok-soo, 46, the chairman of Lee Sports.
There are only a few places that produce balls for Boccia abroad. Lee’s balls are as round as they get and seams are very regular so they roll as players intend. In 2001, the International Boccia Commission marked Lee’s balls as the official balls for the game.
Demand is pouring in from abroad but Lee says he won’t sell them until the Beijing Paralympic Games are over.
Lee used to make soccer balls by hand. At the age of 3, his family moved to Seoul from Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province. He dropped out of middle school and started sewing soccer balls to make ends meet. Right before the 2002 Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup, he made a ball that was 4.5 meters in diameter, listing it in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest soccer ball. But since mass-produced balls made in other countries including China and Pakistan entered the Korean market, Lee stopped making them because it was impossible to compete against those cheap imports.
Instead, Lee started making Boccia balls. In 1987, when Boccia was introduced in Korea, a set of 13 imported balls cost a whopping 800,000 won ($720). But Lee sold his balls for one-fourth of that. Nowadays, a set of imported balls costs more than 1 million won but Lee’s cost 350,000 won.
He spends more than 10 hours a day making balls. He handles all 15 processes on his own. As he sits all day sewing leather balls, it feels like his lower back is going to break. His hands tingle so he has medicinal patches on them around the clock. He employed college students as part-timers a couple of times. But in 30 minutes or so after they started working, they ran away, making excuses like having to answer their cell phones.
As the work was so hard, Lee once thought of quitting. Then, he went to see a Boccia match. A presenter introduced him to the athletes. “This is Lee Deok-soo, the one who makes balls at a very good price!” Then, all the participants struggled to stand up from their wheelchairs and gave him a standing ovation. Lee then realized it was his calling.
The Beijing Paralympic Games is in the middle stages but the world seems unaware of it. When Park Tae-hwan won a gold medal in swimming in the summer Olympics, a TV commentator shouted, “Don’t be shy about shedding tears!”
But the same TV broadcaster doesn’t give us an opportunity to watch the Paralympics and shed tears.
Public broadcasters don’t air even recorded broadcasts, let alone live games. It’s the same with newspapers. Some even say bluntly it is not pleasant to have a photo of a disabled person in the newspaper that people read in the morning.
The expression that everybody is potentially disabled has become a cliche by now.
But it is still the truth. Therefore, potentially disabled people must communicate with disabled people with open hearts. Boccia is a sport that disabled people can play with potentially disabled people, the elderly with young kids.
It will be great to see Boccia become so popular that Lee becomes better off, has more time to himself and builds a happy family.
The writer is a deputy culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Young-jae