Korea’s athletes fly south for the winter
But over the last decade, things have changed. The tourists may not be back, but they’ve been replaced with another, perhaps more lucrative, group: Korea’s athletes and their support staff. Seogwipo has managed to become a prime spot for winter training.
Buses for Korean football teams line the streets of downtown. From November until March, this city with a population of 155,000 plans to host 20 events with 1,500 teams and about 35,000 athletes. The athletes’ accommodations alone will bring in about 30 billion won ($25.8 million) this season, the city estimates.
“Seogwipo has the warmest temperatures in Korea, and so it’s bound to have the greatest training conditions,” said Kim Ho-gon, manager of the Ulsan Hyundai Tigers football team. “Recently, many pro league teams have also started to come here to train. Teams can train here for about two weeks at a time, which cuts down on time for practice and expenses compared to going abroad for games.”
Seogwipo now has 14 football fields, five with natural grass and nine with artificial grass. After construction of the new winter training center is completed, there will be a total of 17 football fields.
Airlines and rental car companies are providing 40 and 50 percent discounts on their tickets and services, respectively. There are also free shuttle buses to transport all athletes from the airport to their accommodations.
The city foots the bill for health care for athletes who injure themselves at the Seogwipo W Sports Clinic in Jeju World Cup Stadium. Volunteers are on call there to treat injuries, and the clinic is equipped with cutting-edge laser technology. They treat about 200 athletes a day.
“By the end of this month, the players from Chung-Ang University, Yonsei University and Korea University plan on training down here,” said basketball training coach Jang Ki-dong. “Even a pro league team from China will be joining us in the beginning of February.”
One fitness center has a 50-meter (164-foot) pool with 10 lanes, half of them set aside for athletes and the others open to club members. Still, the pool often runs out of room, reflecting why some believe Seogwipo’s efforts to bring in athletes have been too successful.
The man Seogwipo residents have to thank - and blame - for the increase in visitors is Sul Dong-sik. In the winter of 1999, Sul became the football coach at Seogwipo High School. Originally from Cheongju, he played for the football teams at Seongsil High School and Dankook University, but quickly retired from sports after an injury. He started a wedding photography office and saved some money, acquiring a reputation for having smart business sense as well as athleticism.
It was Sul who first realized that the town was the perfect setting for winter training. He began to invite his fellow football coaches from junior high and high schools on the mainland to begin training here. Many declined the invitation; still, Sul worked hard to look after the team members who did come to train, and slowly word began to spread about Seogwipo.
During the 2002 World Cup, manager Guus Hiddink brought the Korean national team to Seogwipo for training.
At the time, Hiddink, whose team stayed at the Paradise Hotel, said, “Seogwipo is really a beautiful place and the perfect place to train. You can’t get this kind of fantastic scenery anywhere else in the world.”
As the area began to build its reputation internationally, everything began to change. By that time, Sul had secured the agreement of the mayor of Seogwipo, Kang Sang-ju, to promote the city formally for spring training.
Kang helped commission new football fields in areas where there once had been just breezy green fields. The mayor was supportive of Sul’s ideas, and the locals began to cooperate as the winter practice games grew popular.
About 70 football teams are in Seogwipo this year. Sul is always there to check up on their daily practice and training assignments. If there are problems with lodging or food, he’s the one to mediate and make sure the problems are solved. His cell phone is always ringing, and around the beginning of every year he’s constantly exhausted from picking teams, but he finds the experience rewarding.
“If the facilities here improve greatly and attract more Japanese and Chinese pro league teams, then the three countries could hold the winter leagues here,” said Sul. “By the time that happens, Seogwipo will become the mecca for winter training for the first time ever.”
The help of locals and Sul’s devotion and foresight transformed Seogwipo. The city has declared 2010 “The Year of a New Leap,” to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the start of the winter training project.
With that initiative comes a demanding reviewing of areas the city can improve. The city sent employees to Namhae County in South Gyeongsang, Kangjin and Mokpo in South Jeolla and Taebaek, Gangwon, to learn from their competitors. They also benchmarked their findings against international destinations such as Kyushu, Japan, and Kunming, China.
They found Seogwipo’s climate and facilities were far superior to other cities, but that the other destinations were catching up in infrastructure and cost. Their goals now are to expand their indoor gymnasiums and track and field and swimming facilities.
Most recently, Jeju’s sports division created a task force made up of 60 people divided into seven different groups, assigned to everything from field support to flu shot duty. The task force uses a briefing room in front of Jeju World Cup Stadium.
What started with Sul begging his colleagues to visit is now thoroughly systemized. Every year since 2006, government officials have met with coaches one-on-one and worked hard on promotional material.
The Ministry of Public Administration and Security has acknowledged these efforts. In November, eight officials from the sports division of the Jeju Island government were honored for their contributions in booking 8,114 sports teams and 180,278 athletes for training, bringing in approximately 145.5 billion won over the course of the 10-year project - quite an accomplishment for a quiet island town.
By Jung Young-jae [email@example.com]