Intense training with golden goal
Korea shows promise in many major events, but the national table tennis team is expected to be a highlight, though it has not won a gold medal since the 2002 Busan Games. Most athletes are staying at the Taereung Training Village in Seoul, but the table tennis team chose to isolate itself in Danyang County, North Chungcheong, about two hours southwest of Seoul, to concentrate harder on training.
On the road to table tennis gold, the biggest barrier for Korea is China. In the 2010 Guangzhou event, Korea only claimed one silver and four bronze medals, while China took all seven gold medals. And Coach Yoo Nam-gyu, the 1988 Seoul Olympics gold medalist in men’s singles, doesn’t want to see it happen again.
“It might be the toughest event for Korea, since all three top Chinese players, who are also the top three in the world table tennis rankings, are coming to the event,” Yoo said yesterday. “We have been studying their playing style very hard and it is time to test how those efforts will pay off.”
Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, which are high on the world rankings for table tennis, will also be tough competition for Korea.
One strategy for the Korean men is to focus on team matches rather than singles, since most Korean players rank lower than their Asian rivals. For example, Korea’s ace, veteran Joo Se-hyuk, 34, is ranked 19th, while Xu Xin and Ma Long, both from China, are the world’s No. 1 and No. 2.
North Korea is also a potential threat. Korea lost to them in May’s World Table Tennis Championships in Tokyo, and the North also won the gold medal in mixed doubles in the World Table Tennis Championships last year.
The biggest barrier to the women’s team is also China, but Seo Hyo-won, who will compete in the single and group events, said she is ready to roll. “We have been training ourselves with every possible method,” Seo said. “We practiced with male players and were never lazy in studying the Chinese.”
The Guangzhou Games are a bad memory for Korean wrestlers as well. Wrestling has traditionally been an event in which Korea can take a lot of medals at the Asian Games. The team has won a total of 49 golds in the category, the third most after boxing (56) and shooting (55), but they failed to win one four years ago.
Korea wants to regain its former glory at the home event by winning three to five gold medals. The team’s biggest hope is 26-year-old Kim Hyun-woo, the gold medalist in the men’s 66 kilogram Greco-Roman style at the 2012 London Olympics. Kim, who will be Korea’s flag bearer in the opening ceremony, will compete in the 75 kilograms category in Incheon, and his goal is to become the third Korean to win a grand slam: a gold in an Olympics, Asian Games, World Championship and Asian Championship.
His biggest rival is Hadi Alizadeh of Iran, but Kim is confident he can defeat him, since he beat the Iranian the past two times they faced off.
“We started a very intense last-week program,” said An Han-bong, the Greco-Roman style coach. “We expect Korean wrestling to be revived through the Asian Games.” Wrestling starts on Sept. 27 with the men’s 57 kilogram free-style preliminaries.
The national judo team, consisting of 18 players, is also training in Taereung until the very last day.
“The team will move to Incheon tomorrow [Sept. 18] after finishing a final program at Taereung,” a spokesman for the Korea Judo Association said yesterday. “Players have been staying here since June 30 to prepare for the Asian Games.”
Korea aims to win five gold medals out of a possible 16, three in men’s competitions and two in the women’s.
BY KWON SANG-SOO, KIM JI-HAN[firstname.lastname@example.org]