Marathoners still lag at the back of the pack

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Marathoners still lag at the back of the pack

Korean marathoners, who used to be strong contenders in the sport, are still failing to break out of their decade-long funk.

With the world record in the marathon now at about two hours and four minutes, Korean runners are clocking in at times slower than their predecessors.

In the men’s competition, Lee Bong-ju’s Korean record of 2:07.20 set in 2000 still stands.

Things are a little more serious on the women’s side. Kwon Eun-joo’s record of 2:26.12 from 1997 is still the best among Korean women runners.

While Korean marathon runners were once ranked among the best at the Olympics and World Championships, they have failed to adapt and make progress over the years. A large majority of Korean runners are clocking in between 2:13 and 2:15. That’s a serious decline in comparison to the 1990s when the Korean marathon program was at its height and runners used to cross the finish line in 2:10 or better.

Most experts say that Korea has failed to latch on to new trends in the sport that place more emphasis on speed.

“Korea did not have a systematic training regimen in place in the past,” said Hwang Young-cho, national team coach and 1992 Summer Olympics and 1994 Asian Games gold medalist. “Since our runners focused their training on long-distance running, they failed to keep up with the leaders towards the end of races.”

When comparing the top time for a Korean runner this year to the international standard, there is a huge gap. Ji Young-joon’s time of 2:09.31 from April this year is five minutes and 32 seconds behind the world record set by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. During a race, a time gap like that would translate to a distance of roughly two kilometers (1.25 miles).

It has also been suggested that, with improvements in training environments over the years, Korean marathon runners have become complacent.

“Runners today are solely focused on money,” said Hwang.

Today’s runners can make a comfortable living by winning domestic competitions, so there is no need for them to push harder for success on the international level.

“When looking at their records, some runners shouldn’t even qualify as top runners, but they still earn a decent living,” Hwang said. “In comparison to when we used to compete, the support and training environment has improved a lot. But the amount of training and effort is nowhere as close. There are too many athletes who, when pushed a little bit to perform better, complain that the training regimen is too ‘tough’ and the coaching methods are ‘authoritative.’ Can you imagine such athletes breaking records?”

The Korea Association of Athletics Federations’ tendency to intervene in the sport has also proven to be problematic.

“When a new coach is hired, it takes anywhere from six months to a year for the athletes to get acclimated,” said former national team coach Kim Bok-joo. “It doesn’t help when you have KAAF officials trying to control athletes’ training methods.”

For example, a controversy arose over the selection of the men’s representative for the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. Ji is the best runner in the country at the moment, but since Kim Young-jin has a better overall record, the association selected Kim.

“You wouldn’t see such a case even in North Korea,” Kim Bok-joo said with disgust. “There is no fairness in the selection process, what runner would try their best?”


By Kim Woo-cheol [jason@joongang.co.kr]
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