Just two wrestlers go to Tokyo after Covid decimates squad
Two Korea wrestlers are headed to Tokyo to fly the flag for Korea at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Ryu Han-su will compete in the men's Greco-Roman 67-kilogram event and Kim Min-seok will compete in the 130-kilogram event.
The two earned their Olympic berths when they advanced to the finals at the Asian Wrestling Olympics qualifiers in Almaty, Kazakhstan held from April 9 to 11.
Ryu won a silver medal at the qualifiers by beating Turkmenistan's Azatjan Acilow in the quarterfinals and defeating world championship silver medalist Aram Vardanyan of Uzbekistan in the semifinals, but lost to Iran's Muhammad Gerai in the finals.
Kim was able to earn a berth after defeating India's Naveen Kumar in the semifinals. He had to withdraw from the final due to injury.
The Almaty qualifiers were the second of three phases of Olympic qualifiers. The first phase was the 2019 World Wrestling Championships held in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan in September, 2019, where Korea was unable to win any medals.
The final chance to earn a shot came at the World Wrestling Olympic Qualification Tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria from May 6 to 9, where wrestlers like London 2012 gold medalist Kim Hyeon-woo were hoping to earn a shot at Olympic glory.
Unfortunately for Team Korea, that dream fell apart before it could even really begin, with 18 members of the national wrestling team testing positive for Covid-19 on the sidelines of the Bulgarian qualifiers.
After the qualifiers in Kazakhstan, the 50-person Korean team split had into two groups, with 27 people returning to Korea and 23 flying to Sofia, Bulgaria.
But a total of 37 members of the team — 19 in Korea and 18 in Bulgaria — then tested positive with Covid-19.
Of the fourteen wrestlers that were initially scheduled to compete at the qualifications in Bulgaria, only nine, six men and three women, were fit to fight. They all failed to earn a chance to compete in Tokyo.
Among the five that were unable to compete due to Covid-19 was Kim Hyeon-woo, who tested positive a day before the qualifications and had to withdraw.
Korea's two-man wrestling team in Tokyo will be the smallest squad it has sent to a Games since the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
In the past, wrestling was an event where Korea could expect to see some silverware.
Korea's first Olympic gold medal in wrestling was won by Yang Jung-mo in the 62 kilogram freestyle event at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
After that, Korea had a streak of six Olympic gold medals in a row from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It is the event in which Korea has won the fourth-most gold medals and the second-most medals of any color.
But those glory days have slowly disappeared at recent Games. Korea won a single bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a gold at the 2012 London Games and a bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Ryu was at the Rio Games but lost to Rasul Chunayev of Azerbaijan in the bronze medal match and finished fifth. Kim Hyeon-woo was the one to win both medals in London and Rio.
"I want to celebrate for Kim Hyeon-woo if I win a medal," Ryu told the JoongAng Ilbo. "Kim and I, we wrestled together for longer than I can remember, he is my brother and I know how he feels."
The men's Greco-Roman 130-kilogram starts on Aug. 1 with medal matches the following day. The men's Greco-Roman 67-kilogram event starts on Aug. 3 with medal events following on Aug 4.
BY YUN SO-HYANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]