[Viewpoint]Our nation’s champions

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[Viewpoint]Our nation’s champions

There are a number of inspirational sports stars in Korea’s modern history. Their stories are full of the suffering and tears that characterized the times in which they lived.

In the 1970s, the Republic of Korea was struggling to break free from several millennia of poverty, and sports heroes were mostly found in the martial arts, especially boxing. These poor young men punched sandbags with bloodshot eyes and became world champions, one after another.

Young women working in garment and wig factories rubbed sleep from their eyes and listened to live radio broadcasts. They sighed when our boxers fell, and cheered when they got back up.

These athletes’ victories were as invigorating and inspiring as achieving an export goal. In July 1974, Hong Su-wan won the country’s first WBA bantamweight world championship title. Hong said to his mother, “Mom, I got the championship!” And his mother said, “Long live the Korean people!” She celebrated the victory as if it were the nation’s triumph.

Later, Hong recalled that President Park Chung Hee invited him to the Blue House and gifted him enough money to buy an apartment.

Hong provided some of the best drama of the 1970s. At the WBA Junior featherweight title match in November 1977, Hong was downed by Hector Carasquilla of Paraguay four times in the second round. However, in the third round, Hong’s spirit returned and he knocked his opponent out.

Twenty-one years later, the Korean people were hailed once again. In July 1998, the country was in terrible pain from the financial crisis. Park Se-ri, 21, came along to inspire struggling Koreans.

Until Park’s appearance, the ranks of the LPGA, the world of women’s professional golf, were filled with white Western golfers. The tanned Asian with solid legs became a champion. Park was a hungry golfer, not for food but for victory. She strengthened her legs by running up and down stairs, and built up her nerves by practicing in a cemetery at night. In 1998, Korea had to overcome a great challenge. Korea and Park’s drive were a match made in heaven.

Kim Yu-na is skating like an angel at a time when the country is in the middle of a serious crisis. Kim is different from any athletic hero Korea has ever had.

Other athletes defeated foreign rivals and won gold medals in international competitions.

Of course, it is honorable to win games such as baseball, handball, hockey, table tennis and badminton or individual events, like Park Tae-hwan did in swimming. It is also respectable to break a world record as many Korean archers have done.

However, women’s figure skating is a sport on a different level. It not only requires strenuous effort by the individual athlete but also physical beauty.

In 1976, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci captivated the world with her flawless physique and fantastic performance. Like gymnastics, figure skating is an artistic sport in which the athlete stages a masterpiece performance.

Women’s figure skating has long been dominated by beautiful, white skaters from the West. Kim Yu-na made history by breaking the sport’s world record.

Kim is not just a Korean skater. She experiments with what human beauty can achieve.

Four decades of economic development have produced world-class youth. The average height of young Koreans is taller than Japanese and Chinese, and on par with Italians. Did they inherit a height gene from the same ancestors who suffered from poverty and starvation?

The grandfathers and fathers who worked the factories, produced steel and labored in the Middle East from the ’60s to the ’80s produced top-quality genes for future generations.

Korea has evolved from the bloody boxing ring to the sweaty ping-pong table, to the windy target. And Korea now dominates the brilliant jewel of the women’s figure skating rink.

The miracles of economic development and democratization are embodied in the movements of Kim Yu-na.

The breath of striving Koreans fill her willowy figure.

Does any other country have as dramatic a story as ours?

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin
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