Under the gun for an exemption
The thought of continuing their careers - and having a chance at making money through lucrative long-term deals for professional athletes - was enough to make grown men cry here during the Asian Games.
Major League Baseball outfielder Choo Shin-soo helped Korea win a gold medal last Friday and was reduced to tears at the top of the medal podium as the Korean flag was raised.
During the Asian Games, he had refused to discuss his immediate future. But after the gold medal game, Choo admitted military service exemption had been on his mind.
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about the military issue,” Choo said. “Now I will be able to focus strictly on baseball. A lot of fans and players have been concerned about my future. I am very appreciative.”
All able-bodied Korean men between the ages of 18 and 38 must serve about two years in the armed forces. For athletes, that could mean a disruption to their careers during their prime years, or even the end of their playing days. But an Olympic medal or an Asian Games gold medal earns them exemption from military service.
Athletes in major sports such as baseball, football and basketball can actually continue playing in the Armed Forces Athletic Corps, but there are limited spots and their regimens aren’t as organized as in pro leagues.
Kim Meen-whee, an 18-year-old golfer who won the men’s individual and team gold medals here, also cried after securing his military service waiver.
Kim said the desperation factor was why Korean male golfers were so dominant all week - Kim had a nine-shot victory in individual play and the team won by 32 strokes.
“We are more desperate than golfers from any other country,” Kim said.
Without having to serve in the armed forces, Kim is looking at perhaps a 20-year professional career without disruption.
Kim said he’d always wanted to turn pro after winning an Asian Games gold and his goal is to “become a consistent player on the PGA Tour [in the United States].”
Han Yun-hee, coach of the gold medal-winning men’s golf team, said Korean golfers perform better because “they have a purpose.”
“It’s essentially do or die for them,” Han said.
But not everyone dealt with such pressure as aptly.
For taekwondo’s Jang Kyeong-hun, not winning a gold medal hit closer to home.
Jang is the breadwinner of his household, and he needed to get his exemption so that he could continue feeding his family. His father suffered a stroke when Jang was 9 and has been bedridden since. And his mother, who had been nursing her husband, died in a climbing accident three months ago.
Jang’s sister quit her job to take care of her father. That left Jang, who works for a district office in Daegu, southeast of Seoul, as the only income earner for the family.
But he was knocked out of the first round in the men’s under-74 kilogram division, bowing to the eventual gold medalist Alireza Nassrazadany of Iran.
Jang wasn’t available for comment after his bout. His coach, Kim Jung-kyu, observed that Jang might have tightened up too much.
“Jang had worked hard, but he looked out of sync,” Kim said. “It wasn’t the best of situations for him, with his mother’s passing and father’s condition. It’s just heartbreaking.”