Godfather of judo thinks big as Olympics committee head

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Godfather of judo thinks big as Olympics committee head


Kim Jung-haeng, Korean Olympic Committee president

Kim Jung-haeng became the 38th president of the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) last month, erasing the bitter memory of defeats in the 2002 and 2008 elections. He will manage the organization until February 2017.

In the KOC chief election last month, Kim earned 28 out of 54 valid votes cast by KOC delegates, beating Lee Elisa, a former table tennis world champion and currently Saenuri Party lawmaker who vied to become the first female KOC president.

Kim, who won a silver medal at the 1967 Tokyo Universiade, is considered the godfather of judo in Korea.

The 69-year-old has served six terms as head of the Korea Judo Association since 1995.

He served as the head of the Judo Union of Asia and vice president of the International Judo Federation. The former judoka was also president of Yongin University, a school known for judo, since 1994.

But his contribution to Korean athletics isn’t limited to judo. He led the Korean delegation at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok and 2008 Beijing Olympics, while working as vice president of the KOC for the last 16 years. Kim also served as vice president of the organizing committee for the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.

Kim, born in Pohang, North Gyeongsang, is the first former national team athlete to become KOC president. The top KOC post has been predominantly held by politicians and corporate executives.

The KOC represents 56 sports federations in the nation, 17 provinces or city sports councils and 17 overseas branches. Its budget for this year is 170 billion won ($153 million).

Some people doubt whether a former athlete can effectively control this major sports-governing body. But with former shooting athlete and Taeneung Training Center director, Park Jong-gil, also appointed as new vice minister of culture, sports and tourism, the question now is about whether these former athletes can actually see what other bureaucrats couldn’t.

But Kim, who has more than three decades of experience in sports administration, said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo last week that he is confident in his goal to see the KOC become a better organization with a former athlete in charge.

Even with tough questions from the onset, he kept his judoka and sportsman spirit, showing his ambition to tackle tough challenges ahead while emphasizing unity.

Q. There is a criticism that your inauguration ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel was too luxurious. It was reported that some 700 guests attended, and the cost for the meal was 95,000 won per head.

A. I sent out invitations selectively, but as I spent a long time in school and the judo community, there were too many guests. I know some of them left without eating. I will try not to do that again.

What’s the first thing that you want to do as a chief of Korean athletics?

In my inauguration speech, I said I will revive the physical fitness tests in middle and high schools. These days, students health and cooperative spirit is not like the old days as they are stressed by studies and play only computer games. School violence is a problem, but what’s worse is the increasing number of students committing suicide.

It seems many people want to see physical fitness tests in schools, but how will you make it happen?

First, we need cooperation from the Education Ministry and help from colleges. Health is more important than studying when it comes to happiness and a peaceful family. The media outlets need to promote this continuously. I think during my four-year tenure, I will be praised by others if I make a revival of the physical fitness test and there won’t be a problem for me being re-elected (laughs).

You appointed Lee Elisa, who was your competitor in the KOC chief election, as vice president, but she rejected the position. Why do you think that happened?

I thought our sports philosophy was the same, so I left the vice president position for her. After the election, I called Lee many times to work together for the sake of Korean sports and athletics.

Lee told me, “Mr. President, keep your good health.” She talked so kindly I thought she would accept the position, but since she denied it, I had nothing more to say.

You also emphasized the welfare of athletes during the inauguration speech. Why?

School sports and general sports for all is important. But in order for our athletes to develop more in the future, they need to have strong performances in international competitions. We are now among the top seven advanced countries in sports, but to maintain this position, we need to have better support for athletics. I want to provide a structure so these athletes can have a stable living after retirement.

You also asked the government to allocate 50 percent of the Sports Toto lottery fund in order to make that promise.

Originally, Sports Toto was created to support sports. Countries like Germany and Italy also operate that way. It will be better if I can get more funding from the national budget, but it’s very difficult for me to do alone.

What do you think about wrestling being removed from the Olympic?

It’s really sad, but we will put our best effort forward to get wrestling back to where it was. I think all sports need to work harder to improve, such as altering the rules, to deliver more joy and dynamism to fans.

What’s the biggest task for Korean athletics community at this moment?

During the election, we were divided into two sides. What’s important is to achieve unity again. I want to also open my mind to those who didn’t support me and open the road for national athletic development. I want to hear that the KOC is really different with an athlete leading the group.

By Jeong Young-jae, Joo Kyung-don [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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