[Viewpoint] A team effort for Korea’s sports

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[Viewpoint] A team effort for Korea’s sports

Every day seems to be a celebration for Koreans as the national team athletes continue to achieve glorious triumphs in Vancouver.

On Feb. 21, Lee Jung-su won his second gold medal on the short track, and Korean speed skaters have surprised the world with a world-class performance. In a few days, figure skating phenomenon Kim Yu-na will present her signature triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.

Winter sports have a special appeal to television viewers, who can enjoy the white snow and blue sky while athletes compete in skiing and snowboarding events. Sports have always given Koreans energy, hope and confidence, and once again, they are brought together for the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

The 1988 Seoul Olympics were not just a sporting event but rather a turning point that changed the social, cultural and economic history of Korea. With the Olympics as a starting point, the mind-set and overall quality of life here changed.

The heroes of the Vancouver Olympics are the so-called “Olympic babies” who were born around the time of the Seoul Olympics. This global generation is full of the confident young Koreans who have a strong desire to make personal accomplishments. Many winter sports require parents’ financial backing, and these athletes are more often than not well-off. Therefore, devoted and education-driven Korean parents are likely to create a boom for certain sports just as Pak Se-ri boosted popularity for golf among children.

The longtime best-seller “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes social and environmental elements in producing results. The internationally celebrated figures who accomplished great achievements were not only blessed with outstanding talents but also had support and infrastructure.

Despite the fact that in Korea, winter Olympic sports events have limited support and infrastructure and the pool of athletes is very small, there have been great achievements in recent years.

There are only 35 ice rinks around the country, with eight of them located in Seoul, one in Incheon and nine throughout Gyeonggi. There were only 1,151 registered speed skaters, short-track skaters and figure skaters in Korea as of 2008, including elementary school students and nonprofessional clubs.

Korea could pull off astonishing victories in speed skating at the Olympics as the Taereung International Skating Rink, built in 2000, offers a systematic training facility and hosted international events. The ice rink that the government built for Korea National Sport University was especially effective. The Korean Olympic Committee and the Korean Skating Union concentrated their budgets to support speed skating and provided intensive training while offering training integrated with sports science and technology in events with promising chances for medals.

However, cross-country skiing, biathlon and ski jumping get little attention or support. We have no training facility for sled sports such as luge, bobsled and skeleton, so if Korean athletes decide to compete, they can automatically make the national team. Much of the winter sports equipment in Korea are pricey imports.

When you are competing as a member of the national team in an international event such as the Olympics, you are not just playing sports as a hobby or for your own health, but to bring joy and national pride to your country’s citizens as well. Therefore, national support is necessary for those athletes. Moreover, when elite athletes are nurtured, they should not neglect schoolwork or be deprived of their individual privacy.

Olympic stars devote their youth to win medals. In order for them to continue to treasure those medals instead of harboring bitter memories, they should be provided with proper education and leadership as well as a fair opportunity to pursue a post-athlete career.

Also, our society needs to remember that these celebrity athletes have been able to achieve their accomplishments because they were guided by coaches who put in just as much effort.

During the Winter Universiade in Poland, I was deeply impressed by the devotion short-track head coach Jeon Myung-gyu showed. The head coach, who has fanned the flames of Koreans’ pride in the Winter Olympics, personally prepared meals for each skater to suit their preferences and wrote notes to the athletes after hard practices.

As society changes, sports itself is going to be a core industry and sports-related professions will diversify in the late 21st century. From now on, the government needs to pay more attention to technology projects in the sports industry and solidify the frame of national sports and fitness through a comprehensive and long-term master plan.

*The writer is a professor of sports and leisure studies at Yonsei University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Won Young-shin
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