Athletes should enjoy their moment

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Athletes should enjoy their moment

The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics have been one of the most entertaining in my recent memory. The Korean speed skating team has finally come to the forefront after years of competing in the shadow of the more prominent short-track speed skating team.

Watching Lee Sang-hwa win the 500-meter speed skating event on Wednesday morning, I couldn’t help but notice her shedding tears of joy. Because she’s known for her tough demeanor as much as for her muscular physique, that came as a surprise.

It also raised the question of why Korean athletes seem to be more emotional in comparison to other athletes in international competitions. It doesn’t happen nearly as frequently as it used to, but it’s still not rare to see Korean Olympians weeping on the podium. In contrast, athletes from other countries are often beaming and busily waving to the crowd.

Korean athletes don’t prepare for competition by listening to ultra-sappy K-pop ballads. Rather, it all comes down to the intense training and hard work these men and women endure through the years leading up to the Olympics.

Athletes who train at the National Training Center in Taeneung, northern Seoul, get one day off per week - or in some cases, only two days off per month. Their schedule consists of intense, four-times-a-day training sessions. They work with the pressure of knowing they’ll have only one to three shots at winning a medal every four years, and male athletes have the added pressure of knowing they will lose two years of their prime in mandatory military service if they don’t win a medal at the Olympics or a gold at the Asian Games.

Can you imagine going through that for nearly 300 days a year? Multiply that by four, and failing to earn a medal at the Olympics could be more painful than a morning suicide sprint after a night of hard drinking. Even if you were to win, it would be natural to get overwhelmed.

On media day, Incheon-born American short-track speed skater Simon Cho mentioned that, having trained with Koreans in the past, he believes the secret to why they are ahead of other countries is their hard work. These athletes know they must overcome their size limitations by working harder than their opponents. And diligence is a good quality, especially for athletes.

American boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. once said he occasionally likes to work out during the wee hours of the morning because it gives him the psychological advantage of knowing he is working hard when his opponent is likely to be enjoying his sleep.

Koreans in general are known as hard workers but I think there’s a need to let loose and have fun every now and then.

One athlete who seemed to relish the moment after winning the gold medal in the men’s 500-meter event was Lee’s mate from Korea National Sport University, Mo Tae-bum.

After winning a gold medal in his Olympic debut, the birthday boy wore a gaudy helmet thrown onto the ice by Dutch fans. Mo skated around the rink waving and smiling, and was ear-to-ear on the podium during the medal ceremony. He smiled while flashing a victory sign during the 1,000-meter flower ceremony.

What’s in store for the young man who won Korea’s first gold in a speed-skating event when he comes home?

“When we hung out, we used to go out for drinks on a few occasions but Tae-bum seemed to watch his alcohol intake and looked after himself. When he gets back, I want to go to a club with him and have some fun,” said Ryu Kyung-rok, a teammate at KNSU, in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo.

Hard work and determination is all good but maybe the Korean athletes can also take a lesson from “Money” and Mo. Learn to live a little when away from training. The Olympics come around once every four years. Enjoy the experience, hang out, chug a few pints and all that.

And remember to smile and enjoy the moment when the eyes of the whole world are briefly upon you.


By Jason Kim [jason@joongang.co.kr]

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