[Viewpoint] Heungbu’s tale has an Olympic moral

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[Viewpoint] Heungbu’s tale has an Olympic moral

February tends to pass quickly, and this year the Winter Games made it fly. The Olympics are a biennial ritual that stirs up our lives and refreshes our spirits - a modern carnival in which, through the help of the visual media, the whole world can take part.

So much feeling and appreciation has been publicly expressed already that I probably don’t need to praise figure skating queen Kim Yu-na. Kim shed tears as she completed her flawless performance, and Koreans cried with her.

At that moment, Kim was our avatar of hope. It was an extraordinary moment of self-reflection and honor for all Koreans, and showed the important role sports can play in generating national unity.

In the past, the Olympic Games were festivals that celebrated the “amateur spirit,” in which nonprofessional athletes were held up as embodiments of the true spirit of sports.

In the 21st century, that line no longer distinguishes the finest athletes in the world. In a country like Korea, where the development of sports was intertwined with the modernization of the country and where the government directly intervened in the sports community, the blood tie between the Olympic Games and the amateur spirit may be hard to understand.

Korea maintained its poise as it achieved glory in the Winter Games, and that itself is cause for emotion.

This year, the loudest voice was heard when a newscaster screamed as he saw short-track skater Sung Si-bak fall just before the finishing line.

We behaved very differently when wrestler Yang Jung-mo won the country’s first gold medal in the Montreal Olympics in Canada in 1976, and the nation erupted in applause and exclamation.

In Yang’s time, an Olympic gold medal was like the legendary gourd seed given to Heungbu.

In that folk story, a poor but honest and warm-hearted man healed a swallow’s broken leg. The swallow flew off but returned from its home bearing a seed that it gave to Heungbu. When the seed bore fruit, gold and treasures popped out of the gourds.

Seeing this, Heungbu’s wealthy and greedy older brother Nolbu caught a swallow and broke its leg. That swallow also flew off to its home and returned with a gift of a seed, but when Nolbu’s fruit ripened it bore punishing spirits who took away all his wealth.

For Koreans, Yang’s medal was another story of virtue rewarded. By winning the country’s first gold medal, he symbolized Korea’s can-do spirit.

Since then, we have produced two extraordinary marathoners - Hwang Young-jo and Lee Bong-ju. Hwang retired after winning a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, but Lee continued his run just until recently.

How do we explain the difference in their longevity? Hwang was more of a professional athlete, while Lee was committed to the amateur spirit.

An amateur plays with all-out effort simply for love of the game, while a professional has a clear goal. After achieving his, Hwang may have had a hard time finding a reason to keep running.

Many people have been speculating about Kim’s future ever since she won her gold medal with her best performance ever.

Kim’s first plan was to head to Toronto to prepare for the World Figure Skating Championships in Turin on March 23.

But a sudden change brought her to Seoul for two days - and that change meant she flew from Vancouver to Seoul to stay only a brief time before returning to Canada.

Is this the act of an amateur or a professional athlete?

The answer may be neither. Kim Yu-na is a new kind of sports figure: The national athlete.

People have already begun to talk about Kim’s second Olympic gold. Her coach, Brian Orser, also said he expects to see her to perform a triple axel in four years.

Such talk fittingly represents our national pride, but I hope we do not expect too much.

It may be that Kim, our great sports star, has already given her all. Were she to participate in another Olympics, it’s possible that all she could hope for is “breaking even at best.”

We have all seen this happen to our sports heroes. And we should take the lesson of Nolbu and not be greedy: We should not push Kim for the sake of promoting Korea on the global stage.

I feel sorry for the other great athletes of this Olympics - Mo Tae-bum, Lee Sang-hwa and Lee Seung-hoon - whose feats have been overlooked in the excitement surrounding Kim Yu-na.

They all deserve our praise and thanks for a job well done.

And they deserve a break from the pressure and all-consuming devotion to the sport that led to their wins.

So what should I tell these wonderful athletes?

“Skaters, stay ‘cool’!”

*The writer is a senior reporter of cultural and sports news of the JoongAng Ilbo.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Chung Jae-suk
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