Korean athletes return to a heroes’ welcome

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Korean athletes return to a heroes’ welcome

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The 2016 Summer Games concluded their 16-day journey with the grand closing ceremony on Sunday at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With the musical celebration at the iconic football stadium bringing the curtain down on the Rio Olympics, the torch for the Summer Olympics has been handed to Tokyo, the venue for the 2020 Summer Games.

During the Games of the 31st Olympiad, 11,303 athletes from 206 nations and one refugee team shed sweat and tears, with many demonstrating the true spirit of the Olympics while others became embroiled in scandals or displayed unsportsmanlike conduct, and in the midst of it all was the Korean delegation, comprised of 204 athletes - 103 men and 101 women - competing in 24 sports and finishing the Games at eighth overall in the medal tally. While some made history, others faded from the limelight. But regardless of the results, they will all come home to receive just what they deserve - a heroes’ welcome.

At the closing ceremony on Sunday, Korean Greco-Roman wrestler Kim Hyeon-woo entered the stadium bearing the Korean flag. The winner of the bronze medal in the men’s 75-kilogram (165-pound) category stood among the flag bearers of other nations with his head held high. As a two-time Olympic medalist, he more than deserved the honor.

The Korean archery team once again proved its dominance in the sport when its archers swept titles from all four events: men’s and women’s individual and team events. The gold rush by the archers began on Aug. 6, the first day of this year’s Olympics, when the men’s team wasted no time tallying Korea’s first gold medal. Kim Woo-jin, Ku Bon-chan and Lee Seung-yun went head-to-head against Brady Ellison, Zach Garrett and Jake Kaminski of the United States for gold and emerged as victors of the contest, taking Korea’s fifth Olympic title ever in that event.

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Top: Wrestler Kim Hyeon-woo of Korea, center, holds the Korean flag during the closing ceremony on Sunday at Maracana Stadium. Middle: Son Yeon-jae, a rhythmic gymnast, waves at the crowd after finishing her performance on Sunday. Bottom: Ryu Seung-min, center, has been selected as a member of International Olympic Committee’s Athletes Commission. [JOINT PRESS CORPS, NEWSIS]

A day later, the women’s team also showed they were ready for business when they took gold in their respective team event, with Chang Hye-jin, Ki Bo-bae and Choi Mi-sun bringing down Russia. Taking the top of the podium once more, the Korean quartet extended Korea’s reign in the event to eight straight Olympics. The Korean women’s team has captured gold in archery in each Summer Games since 1988, when the sport became an official medal event.

With two team medals in their pockets, Ku and Chang nabbed individual gold medals for themselves to complete Korea’s title sweep. Now the team has set its eyes on Tokyo, where they may claim five total titles since a co-ed event could be added to the list of games.

Along with archers came Jin Jong-oh in shooting, who picked up his third Olympic gold in the men’s 50-meter pistol on Aug. 10. Jin suffered a heartbreaking defeat earlier when he left the men’s 10-meter air pistol event, where he had been a defending title holder, without a medal. Although devastated, Jin’s aim before the Olympics began was to leave his legacy on his main event, the 50-meter pistol contest. Thus, focused and unfazed, Jin took part in the 50-meter pistol event and shot his way to the podium.

After taking his third gold in the event, Jin became not only the first shooter in the world to take three consecutive Olympic golds, but also the first Korean athlete to win three straight titles at either the summer or winter Olympics. He’s also one of the most successful Olympians in Korean history with four golds total.

In addition to archery and shooting, taekwondo was also on the list of events that are considered gold mines for Korea. But although the sport originated here, Korean dominance in the sport has waned since it became an official medal event. After taekwondo made its debut in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, nations such as Mexico and Iran steadily gained leverage. Thus, Korea’s national taekwondo team went to this year’s Olympics hoping to end the nation’s recession in the sport. They did just that when all five members of the team emerged with medals around their necks. Kim So-hui and Oh Hye-ri captured gold while their male teammates, Kim Tae-hun, Lee Dae-hoon and Cha Dong-min all earned bronze. With two golds and three bronzes total, Korea stood at the top in medal table for taekwondo at the 2016 Rio Games.

But it was not only the gold mine event that saw history being made for Korea’s Olympic team. In individual rhythmic gymnastics, medals have been virtually off-limits for Asians at the Olympics, with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus largely dominating the sport. Exceptions to this include Canadian Lori Fung, who is ethnically Chinese and who took gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. And now there is Son Yeon-jae, demonstrating to the world that Asian gymnasts have the potential to go head-to-head against their European counterparts. Son, a sports icon in Korea whose popularity matches that of figure skating star Kim Yuna and medal-winning swimmer Park Tae-hwan, finished fourth after Ganna Rizatdinova of Ukraine.

Aside from these athletes, Ryu Seung-min, former table tennis player and the gold medalist from the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, brought more good news home when he won his bid to become a member of International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Athletes Commission, a feat as unexpected and remarkable as his run to the top of the podium 12 years ago. Ryu is now the second Korean athlete to find a seat in the commission after Moon Dae-sung, a gold medalist in taekwondo during the 2004 Olympics who served as a member of the commission from August 2008 through this year.

Now leaving the Rio Olympics behind, Korean athletes will take some time off before immersing themselves back in their training session once more for the next four years, their eyes set on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics.

BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]

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