Tending the sports gardenThe Rio 2016 Olympics touched our hearts once again. Although Korea failed to accomplish its goal of winning more than 10 gold medals, the athletes who participated in the games had no reservations in showing off their talents and the skills they had honed for years. The Korean people also laughed and cried as they cheered on the national teams.
Unfortunately, the Rio Olympics also revealed the dark side of Korean sports. It was unfortunate, in particular, that gold medals were won from only a few fields such as archery and taekwondo. The popular sports passionately supported by the government and conglomerates failed to win medals. For the first time in 40 years, Korea won no medals in ball games such as football, handball, volleyball and hockey. The national teams showed disappointing records in traditionally strong sports such as judo, wrestling, table tennis and badminton. Team sports and martial arts, which have long contributed to heightening the people’s morale and patriotism, collapsed altogether.
And there was no change in Korea’s history of showing poor performance in the basic sports. Korea failed to medal in track and field, swimming and gymnastics while Japan, China and Great Britain were ranked high on the top tier by winning many medals in the basic sports field. China won 29 medals in track and field, swimming and gymnastics and Japan won 13.
This is the painful reality, the outcome of our lack of effort in finding and educating talented athletes from elementary, middle and high schools. We learned a lesson from the latest Olympics — we must reinforce sports education at grade schools in order to strengthen the competitiveness of athletes.
Japan’s change presented an important lesson. When we were ranked fifth place at the London Olympics four years ago, Japan was only ranked 11th. But Japan was ranked sixth in the latest Games, moving higher up than Korea’s eighth place. Japan particularly showed world-class competitiveness in the basic sports.
About 30 years ago, Japan set the direction of its sports policy by improving leisure sports, and its national teams failed to show good performance in international events in the aftermath of this policy. But about 10 years ago, it shifted direction to pay more efforts to educate elite athletes. Talented young athletes were selected at young ages and educated overseas in order to strategically groom sports elites, and the program was effective.
The marathon was the most devastating event for Koreans in the Rio Olympics. We saw no marathoner who could continue carrying the fame of Sohn Kee-chung, Nam Sung-yong, Suh yun-bok, Hwang Young-cho and Lee Bong-ju. Korea once ruled the marathon world, but has now dropped to the bottom.
Based on the outcome of the Rio Olympics, the government must set forth a long-term plan for sports. In order to improve competitiveness, specialized sports schools for different fields should be designated and operated in various cities and provinces. School sports clubs should be actively supported to allow the public to naturally enjoy sports. Expanding the sports population will allow the country to have a larger pools of athletes in different fields. Moreover, talented young athletes should be identified and educated and sent to study overseas. Such a program is impossible with only the efforts of sports associations; schools and education offices must also cooperate.
Budgets to promote school sports should also be increased. The budget of the Korean Olympic Committee was 2 billion won ($1.79 million) in 1980, but the amount was increased 200 times to 400 billion won this year. Meanwhile, the annual budgets of elementary and middle schools’ sports programs stayed at only a few million won per school over the past 20 years.
Although sports program operators at city and provincial offices continuously made appeals to the government to increase their budgets, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism refused to act.
Facilities are also poor. Only 76 elementary schools nationwide, or 1.3 percent, have swimming pools. Many schools do not have gyms; many have small playgrounds. Spending money on national teams without investing in young athletes’ future is like giving fertilizer to fully grown trees instead of saplings. It may be time to establish a new ministry of sports to be in charge of sports policy in the country.
As the government tried to merge the Korea Olympic Committee and the Korea Council of Sport for All, conflicts arose among the sports associations. During this process, control over their operations and budgets grew, discouraging athletes and managers. Associations for each field also failed to manage their athletes before the Rio Olympics.
The sense of crisis also grew in the sports community as physical education at schools, the root of national sports, shrank. The crisis of physical education at schools was mainly caused by the government’s failure to present a long-term policy.
Korea’s sports policy must start by investing in school sports. Although many leaders and coaches stressed it in the past, the government and the Korea Olympic Committee did not pay attention. The government and sports administrators must end their discussions and act. Athletes who present electrifying victories do not just fall from the sky.
*JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 2, Page 32
*The author is chairman of the School Physical Education Promotion Research Society and former chairman of the School Sports Commission of the Korea Olympic Committee.