[Viewpoint] Where are the Kim Yu-na kids?I was lucky to have spent my childhood in Chuncheon, Gangwon. I had the chance to watch the skating at the Winter National Sports Festival every year at Gongjicheon Creek.
Back then, there were not many skating rinks, even in Seoul. I used to ride on a sled made from an ammunition box over the frozen fields, and when Gongjicheon Creek froze completely, I would bring out my treasured pair of Jeon Seung-hyun skates and run to the creek.
Especially during the Winter National Sports Festival, the creek becomes crowded with all kinds of vendors and skate blade repairmen.
Growing up in Chuncheon, my friends and I were very good at skating, but those figure skaters from Seoul made us shrink away. I still vividly remember the graceful skaters from the private Eunseok and Lira elementary schools in Seoul.
The figure skates, with their round blade tips, seemed like a symbol that set Seoul apart from the countryside.
Shin Hye-suk, figure skating coach and member of the technical committee of the Korea Skating Union, has won the National Sports Festival many times, and she is an alumna of Eunseok Elementary School. She also studied in Japan.
However, she says the environment for figure skaters in Korea is still very poor. “I hope we can have at least one skating rink exclusively for figure skaters.” She is now coaching 12-year-old Lee Dong-won, an up-and-coming athlete in men’s figure skating. He usually trains from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m., because the rink is used during the day for ice hockey, short track skating and the general public.
“There are 300 registered figure skaters in Korea, and there are 3,000 in Japan, so the environment is not even comparable,” she said.
That Kim Yu-na rose to the top from such a poor environment is almost a miracle. Experts call Kim “the first near-perfect figure skater in the 100-year history of Korean skating.”
But what will happen when Kim Yu-na retires? What if she decides to do so after winning a gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics next year? While no one is raising this possibility openly, it is the worst-case scenario.
A few days ago, Kim won the first event of the senior-level ISU Grand Prix with world records, but we need to pay attention to the fact that Japanese skaters were ranked in the second and third places.
Moreover, Nobunari Oda, the 17th direct descendent of Nobunaga Oda, who unified Japan in the Sengoku period, won the men’s singles.
Kim Yu-na is the only Korean competing against the world. There are Korean skaters the same age, but they are far from the top.
The reality is more obvious when we look at the junior grand prix. When Kim was competing at the junior level, two Korean skaters participated in the junior grand prix. However, once Kim moved on to the senior level, only one female Korean skater was invited to compete in five of the seven junior grand prix events.
As the so-called “Pak Se-ri kids” now have become the top golfers in the world, Korea can celebrate a golden age of figure skating when the “Kim Yu-na kids” emerge on the international stage some 10 years from now.
Figure skating is not the only sport lacking a deep pool of athletes. Marathoner Lee Bong-ju won his farewell race at the National Sports Festival. For several years, he has been saying that he would retire when someone can run faster than he does. However, even in the last marathon of his career, no one could beat Lee Bong-ju.
In the game of baduk, when a student wins a game against a master, the victory is considered returning a favor. The junior marathoners could not return Lee Bong-ju’s favor.
Not just in sports but in any other field, the second and third tiers need to be large in order for the field to thrive.
When we have many players of the same caliber, we will see more superstars like Kim Yu-na. We cannot rave over the miraculous success of a lone star forever.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jai-hyun