Korea leaves Tokyo with fewer medals, but signs of more to come
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics ended on Sunday evening, closing the door on two weeks of athleticism that, despite the delays, the protests and the cardboard beds, still delivered its share of drama and excitement.
The Tokyo Olympics was by no means perfect. The decision to hold the world's biggest international sporting event in the middle of a pandemic is as questionable in hindsight as it was going into the Games — according to official numbers, a total of 430 people connected to the Olympics, including 29 athletes, have tested positive since the beginning of July.
But good idea or not, the Olympics delivered on its promise to offer the world a reason to celebrate — for those two weeks, the story was the sport, not the virus.
Korea leaves the games in an unexpected position. In terms of number of medals won, this was Korea's worst Olympics since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Six gold, four silver and 10 bronze medals put Korea in 16th place overall, well below the top-10 finish the country was aiming for.
But statistics don't tell the whole story. While Korea does leave Tokyo with some serious questions to answer about some of its core sports — shooting and Taekwondo, in particular — it also leaves with a lot of signs that the future is bright.
Rather than raking in medals from a few key events with the occasional outlier thrown in for good measure, Korea in Tokyo emerged as a serious contender in a whole range of sports, from swimming and diving to gymnastics, modern pentathlon and even climbing. While that didn't necessarily translate to medals this year, with the right development and support it sets Korea up to become a major player across the board in the future.
But medals or not, there were still plenty of reasons to celebrate in Tokyo.
The Olympics started with Korea quickly reestablishing its dominance in archery, with 20-year-old An San shattering a 25-year-old Olympic record before the Opening Ceremony had even began.
Over the following few days, Korea won four gold medals in five archery events, missing out on only the men's individual medal. An alone won three gold medals, the first archer ever to do so, after winning the inaugural mixed team event with Kim Je-deok.
Following the success of the archers, Korea's fencing team emerged as a force to be reckoned with, winning one gold, one silver and three bronze medals in Tokyo. Team events proved to be where Korea shone the brightest, winning gold in the men's team sabre, silver in the women's team épée and bronze in the men's team épée and women's team sabre.
Taekwondo and judo each provided three medals each, a silver and two bronze in both cases. The Taekwondo result was disappointing, Korea expects at least a few gold medals in its own sport, but looked at from another angle, it was overwhelming proof of the sport's enduring popularity around the world.
The judo medals were a nice addition — Korea went to Tokyo hoping to beat Japan at its own game, and that is exactly what it did.
Korea took two medals in gymnastics, a sport where Korea has never been a major player. Shin Jae-hwan's gold in the men's vault was a huge and unexpected success, but it was 19-year-old Yeo Seo-jeong who made history, winning bronze in the women's vault for Korea's first ever medal in women's gymnastics.
Yeo wasn't Korea's only first-ever medalist in a sport at the Games. On Saturday, Jun Woong-tae won Korea's final medal of the Games with a bronze in modern pentathlon, the country's first medal in the sport. Not only did Jun medal, but his teammate Jung Jin-hwa finished fourth. A day earlier, Kim Se-hee finished 11th in the women's event, suggesting Korea has an exciting future in the sport.
Away from the medals, there were more signs that Korea's sporting focus is changing. Freestyle swimmer Hwang Sun-woo shattered two Korean records and an Asian record, becoming the first Korean swimmer since Park Tae-hwan to reach a final at the Games. While he would undoubtedly have liked to have medaled, Hwang's performance at the Olympics proved that a Korean swimmer can stand alongside the European and American athletes that dominate the sport.
Similarly, diver Woo Ha-ram became the highest-ranked Korean diver ever at the Olympics by finishing in fourth place in the men's three-meter springboard diving contest, narrowly missing out on a medal. Woo Sang-hyeok broke a 24-year-old Korean high jump record, clearing the bar at 2.35 meters and winning over spectators with his positive energy.
Sport climber Seo Chae-hyun was knocked out of contention by a fiendish bouldering wall in the final on Friday, but her second-place finish in the preliminary round suggests a chance at medaling in Paris.
Team sports were more of a concern. Korea's basketball, rugby, handball and football teams were all eliminated early in the competition — not a huge surprise for basketball, rugby or handball, but a major concern for the football team. The baseball team reached the semifinals but ended in a disappointing fourth place, failing to defend its title as reigning champion.
The one bright spot was the volleyball team. While it also finished in fourth place, it entered the tournament as the underdog and visibly developed throughout the Games, making it all the way to the bronze medal match and defeating a few of the world's biggest teams along the way.
Korea leaves the Tokyo Olympics with a very different set of results than expected, but that isn't necessarily bad news. If this new generation of rising stars can get the right support and training, Korea could be looking at a lot more medals in a lot more sports in the future.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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