[FRONT OFFICE] Ryu Seung-min: The table tennis star that became the face of Korean athleticism
Ryu Seung-min — the table tennis star, Olympic gold medalist, coach, sports administrator and denizen of a handful of international sporting bodies including the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — is used to wearing a lot of different hats.
Following an outstanding table tennis career, Ryu, who is still just 38 years old, has stepped back from competing and dedicated himself to developing sport, both in Korea and around the world.
Ryu started his career as a regular table tennis player famous for his fancy footwork. He went on to earn a spot on the national team and started winning medals on the international stage, eventually topping the podium at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Having quite literally reached the top of his game, Ryu came back at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, adding a bronze and silver respectively in the team events. Although he never picked up gold at the World Championships or the World Cup, when Ryu eventually hung up his professional paddles he had already had a dominant career.
But if one thing is clear about Ryu, it's that he's constantly moving forward. After retiring as a player, Ryu quickly became a coach, eventually coaching the Korean team before becoming head of the Korea Table Tennis Association (KTTA).
But Ryu had bigger aspirations, and it's no longer just about table tennis. As well as head of the KTTA, Ryu was appointed to the IOC in 2016, is an executive committee member of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and chair of its World Table Tennis Championships Busan Organizing Committee, is a member of the foundation board at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and sits on a wide range of Olympic commissions covering a range of issues including education and sustainability.
You'd be forgiven for looking at Ryu's shockingly long resume and assuming he just takes any title that comes his way, but that isn't the case. When it comes to taking on a job, Ryu is only willing to get involved if he honestly thinks he can get the work done.
And of course, it has to be related to sports.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Ryu is now even busier than he was at the peak of his professional career.
Being a member of so many international organizations takes up a huge amount of Ryu's time, but he's not complaining.
“Actually in 2018, I couldn’t go home for about 180 days,” Ryu says. “And there are a lot of overseas work.”
While his schedule usually requires him to travel around the world, like everybody else, Ryu's work has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic this year.
“This year, I only went [abroad] once,” Ryu says. “Due to the coronavirus, I couldn’t do anything. Instead, the majority of my work was done through video conferences. I think there’s about four or five [video conferences] each week. When there are no meetings, I come out to the office and have meetings with our workers regarding our business. Since the majority of my work has moved online, I do a lot of my work through computer.”
This year, Korea was expected to play host to the ITTF 2020 World Team Table Tennis Championships in Busan, and Ryu was the head of the organizing committee. The event was scheduled to begin from March 22 through 29, but as coronavirus cases rose, the committee and the ITTF made the difficult decision to postpone the tournament.
Unfortunately, every time the newly postponed tournament dates approached, the committee was forced to postpone it again. Currently, the tournament is scheduled to be held from Feb. 28 to March 7, 2021.
“It’s scheduled for next year, but we are still paying close attention to the situation,” Ryu says.
Although there’s still no guarantee that the tournament will go ahead next year, the continuous changes to the schedule have put the organizing committee in a tough situation.
“Rather than scheduling changes, this is something of an irresistible force,” Ryu says. “[To be honest,] we thought the coronavirus would end soon. It’s taking so much longer [than expected], and renting out a place isn’t that easy.”
Considering the various factors, the organizing committee settled on February next year, but Ryu is still unsure as to whether the tournament will actually happen as coronavirus cases could rise again. However, Ryu says that the organizing committee is slowly preparing for the tournament to go ahead.
But it’s not only the World Team Table Tennis Championship. For the first time in history, the Olympics was postponed this year.
“It’s not just about sports,” Ryu says. “This is for everything. The IOC have been continuously having meetings to deal with it, so we’ll see good results.”
Earning a seat
After a successful professional career, Ryu has achieved the dream that so many athletes share — earning a seat at the IOC table. Ryu says the only secret to that success is dedication.
“I first started out with that mindset,” Ryu says. “But it’s not something you can achieve without the right mindset. There’s a lot of work, and you have to actively participate. After I became an IOC member, a lot of other titles followed along, but they are all related to sports. Since all that comes along, I have to attend the meetings, prepare for them and do the work.”
There have been news stories claiming that Ryu has been preparing to become a member of the IOC since his early 20s, but he says that isn't really true. Instead, he says that he just jumped at the opportunity when the moment came.
“Rather than a long preparation, I felt like I didn’t have enough time to prepare for it,” Ryu says. “Since I was in a position where I spent the majority of my time as a professional athlete and about a year as a coach, I had almost no experience working outside of that field.”
Joining such a big organization with so little experience in sports administration, Ryu says it wasn’t all plain sailing in the beginning. Ryu says that he struggled to adjust to the new role and learn about the organization.
“To be honest, it was a little overwhelming at first,” Ryu says. “But as I was getting help from people around me, I was able to make quick adjustments.”
Perhaps those adjustments were helped along by the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, where Ryu served as the Mayor of the Olympic Village PyeongChang 2018. This acted as a sort of crash course in the administrative side of the sporting world, but again, it wasn't easy. For Ryu, one of the biggest issues was linguistic.
“I would say language is one of them,” Ryu says. “And since this job involves meeting people, there were times when I wasn’t able to remember the names. Also, since there are so many organizations, there are a lot of acronyms. So I would say those areas took me some time to get used to and learn.”
Going from a player to a coach to an IOC member, Ryu has experienced the sporting world from every perspective, giving him a fairly unique insight into the distinct responsibilities of each role.
“Players just need to take care of themselves,” Ryu says. “I needed to take care of my physical condition and follow my routine for the tournament. After that was finished, I prepared for the next tournament, and so on. But for a coach or administrator, that’s not the case. Rather than focusing on my own routine, I have to use my skills to support others.”
As coaches and administrators are seen as the people behind the scenes working to make their athletes perform at their best, Ryu says that you don't visually see rewards for that achievement.
“You feel a bigger sense of achievement once you realize that someone was helped by you,” Ryu says. “If my reward back when I was a player was a medal, now, the reward is others receiving better treatment or a better working environment and being happy with the work I’ve done.”
Ryu says his experience as a coach was nothing like being a professional player. Rather than his performance, what mattered to him the most was the condition of the players, their personalities and their strengths and weaknesses.
“As a coach, I would say my proudest moment was that I was able to communicate well with the players,” Ryu says. “Because they were close with me even before. As an administrator, I would say my proudest moment was the successful PyeongChang Olympics.”
Serving as the mayor of the Olympic Village was an interesting experience for Ryu.
“It was the first time since the '88 Olympics that the Games was held in Korea,” Ryu says. “I realized my dream of becoming a table tennis player after watching the '88 Olympics. Thirty years later, I took part in it and helped run a successful Games. I’m very proud of that and I would like to thank the IOC for giving me the opportunity.”
In addition to the Winter Olympics, he said another achievement that he is proud of is his role in having the comment section removed in the sports news section on Korea's major portal sites. Although Ryu wasn’t personally responsible for the ban, he was part of the campaign to have comments removed as he is well aware of the mental harm that malicious comments can cause to athletes.
Leaving the path
Normally when Korean athletes retire, they tend to extend their career by starting a coaching career or opening their own training academy. But Ryu took a completely different path. He did briefly serve as a coach, but it wasn't long before he broke away from that traditional path.
“I never imagined myself having this many meetings in my life, up until about four years ago,” Ryu says. “But I think this path is all about the individuals’ needs. If they have the passion and it makes them feel that they have to do this, like I do, then they can get to this stage. I’m aware that a lot of Korean athletes are preparing for the IOC's Athletes Commission election in Paris 2024.”
With a lot of athletes lined up hoping for a spot at the next IOC intake in Paris 2024, Ryu is willing to share his experience. He has record books tracking his experience each year and is looking forward to one day being able to mentor a new Korean IOC member.
“There’s a limit to the experience of a Korean athlete when it comes to attending meetings,” Ryu says. “I believe that is still the case right now. So if they can prepare for it, then I don’t think the steps are important. As long as they are ready and have the passion for it, then opportunities will come.”
While language skills are important, Ryu added that knowledge of sports in general is also key.
“In western countries, athletes are involved in a lot of those activities while they are still active as a player,” Ryu says. “But in Korea, athletes are not given many opportunities to be involved, so we need to provide more and encourage people to get involved.”
Next on the agenda
It's difficult to imagine where Ryu could possibly go in his career from here, but he does have a goal for his eight-year IOC term: To be remembered as the person who represented the players well and raised my voice to support them.
“Receiving that evaluation will be my goal,” Ryu says. “So far I think I’m doing well, but I think there are areas that I need to work harder on, and the past year has been hard. We’ve been talking about how to recover.”
Just as Ryu says, there have been changes over the years and one of them is discrimination against racism.
“There are big agendas at the IOC,” Ryu says. “But I can say that within this uncertain situation, the IOC is negotiating ways that they can secure the safety of athletes.”
Aside from the IOC, Ryu has his own agenda, although he's keeping that under wraps for now. When he does eventually leave the world of sports, however, it's not the numerous titles that he wants to be remembered for.
“I feel comfortable hearing people call me a player,” Ryu says. “I want to be remembered as a successful athlete and be recognized as someone who also had just a successful career after my retirement.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]
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