Top sports stories of 2021
Unexpected heroes arise in Tokyo
For the first time in Olympic history, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed by a year due to Covid-19. When they finally did happen, the Games were by no means perfect ― most noticeably, it was the first-ever Games held without any spectators at most events.
Korea left Tokyo in an unexpected position. In terms of number of medals won, this was Korea's worst Olympics since the 1984 Los Angeles Games. 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.
Eighteen-year-old Seo Chae-hyun became Korea's first female sport climbing Olympian and, despite missing out on the podium, her second-place finish in the preliminary round suggests a chance at medaling in Paris.
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.
Yeo Seo-jeong, the 19-year-old won bronze medalist in the women's vault, became the first Korean woman ever to medal in gymnastics.
And freestyle swimmer 18-year-old Hwang Sun-woo became 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.
Ji So-yun is greatest Korean footballer ever
Ji So-yun became Korea's all-time leading goal scorer across all teams, all divisions, all genders and all competitions earlier this year, overtaking Korean football legend Cha Bum-kun's record with 59 goals.
Ji, who debuted on the national team at only 15-years-old to become the youngest-ever Taeguk Lady, scored her 59th goal with the national team in her 127th appearance with the Taeguk Ladies on Sep. 18 at the AFC Women's Asian Cup qualifier against Mongolia.
Ji has been making strides for Korean women's soccer on the international stage for some time. She started her overseas career with Japanese club INAC Kobe Leonessa in 2011 and in 2014, Ji started playing for Chelsea to become the first Korean to play in the FA Women's Super League.
Since Ji joined the squad, Chelsea have won five Super League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and the Community Shield. This year alone, Chelsea won the treble with the league title, FA Cup and League Cup. Over the years, she has won both the 2014 FA Players' Player of the Year and 2014-15 PFA Players' Player of the Year.
She was nominated for the FIFA Women's World Player of the Year last year, and just last month ESPN put her at No. 18 on a list of the 50 greatest players in the world.
Kim Yeon-koung calls it a day after fourth-place Olympics finish
After leading Korea to a historic fourth finish at the Tokyo Olympics, talismanic captain Kim Yeon-koung retired from the national team on Aug. 12.
Kim dedicated the best part of 20 years to the Korean national team, rising through the ranks from an exceptionally talented high school student to a seasoned veteran and the talismanic captain of the squad.
Kim first wore the Taeguk mark in 2004 at the Asian Junior Women's Volleyball Championship. Then, in 2005, when she was still a student at Suwon Hanil Girls High School, Kim was called up for her first senior match at the FIVB Volleyball World Grand Champions Cup.
The rest is history. After appearing at three Olympics, four Asian Games and three World Championships with Korea, Kim is now retired from national duty and plays for the Chinese club Shanghai Ubest.
Another Sonsational Year for Son
Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min had another Sonsational year on the pitch, earning his place in the history books as one half of the greatest single-season goalscoring duo the Premier League has ever seen.
As well as combining with Harry Kane to score a record 14 goals in one season, Son also bagged his 100th goal for Spurs and appeared in his 300th game.
The Korean star rose above his team's issues off the pitch, adapting to Jose Mourinho's arrival, Nuno Esperito Santo's brief run and Antonio Conte's arrival with style. In fact, Son was the first player to score under all three managers.
The year ended on a different note, however, as Son was one of a number of players believed to have contracted Covid-19. He bounced back, however, scoring a goal as soon as he was back on the pitch.
Another Strong Season Sees Ko Jin-young take Korea's 200th LPGA win
Ko Jin-young once again became the most successful golfer on the LPGA Tour this year, finishing her season in blistering form, winning the season-ending trophy at the CME Group Tour Championship on Nov. 21, the Rolex Player of the Year award and a third-straight money title.
Ko is the only golfer to have won five titles this year. She is the first winner to record five wins in a season since 2016 and is also the third Korean to win five or more times in a single season, alongside Pak Se-ri and Park In-bee.
Ko won her first title of the year at the Volunteers America Classic in July and took her second win at the Cambia Portland Classic in September. She kept on going, winning two consecutive titles at the Cognizant Founders Cup and the BMW Ladies Championship, where she won Korea's 200th LPGA title.
She capped off a phenomenal season walking away with $1.5 million, the largest prize in women's golf, a scoring average of 68.774, five victories with seven additional top-10 finishes and the Rolex Player of the Year title.
KT Wiz win first-ever Korean Series
The KT Wiz were crowned the winners of the 2021 Korean Series after beating the Doosan Bears to take their first ever championship title.
KT's sudden ascension to Korean Series glory came just seven seasons after the team joined the KBO. After being established in Suwon, Gyeonggi in 2015, finished the series in last position three times, ninth once, sixth once and then third last year.
That uphill trajectory continued into this season, earning the club a spot in the Korean Series for the very first time.
The Wiz were on good form from the start this season, taking fourth place alongside the Bears in April after just two weeks of KBO action. Then, before heading into the international break for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Wiz were able to take a narrow lead at the top despite a turbulent period that saw heavy rain and a sudden outbreak of Covid-19 cases.
The Wiz held on to the top spot going into the final stretch, before slipping slightly and ending up tied with the Samsung Lions. The two teams were forced to play a tiebreaker, only the second in KBO history, with the Wiz taking the win by just one run.
After that nail-biter finish, it was the Bears, not the Lions, that the Wiz end ed up facing in the Korean Series. Unfazed by the arrival of the league's perennial Korean Series contenders, the Wiz smashed through the Bears, winning four straight games ― 4-2, 6-1, 3-1, 8-4 ― to take the title.
The celebration was cut short, however, as the team had to cancel its victory parade due to Covid-19.
Archers prove Korea is still No. 1
A generational shift did little to upset Korea's archers, who put on a dominant performance at this year's Tokyo Olympics to prove that they are still the best in the sport.
An San and Kim Je-deok started things off by winning Korea's first gold medal at the inaugural mixed team archery event.
The medals just kept piling in, with An winning Korea's ninth consecutive women's team gold medal alongside Jang Min-hee and Kang Chae-young and also making history as the first person ever to win three archery gold medals at one Olympics when she picked up the women's individual gold medal.
The men's team rounded off their time on the big stage with Korea's fourth gold medal.
NC Dinos Covid cluster cripples the KBO
The NC Dinos ended the 2020 season on top of the world, winning both the pennant and the Korean Series and capturing the hearts of fans around the world, both with their performance on the field and the life-size sword they used to celebrate the championship win.
This year things took a darker turn. The Dinos not only struggled to make an impact on the field, but the team was also caught up in a scandal after players broke Covid-19 social distancing rules, creating a Covid-19 cluster that forced the league to cancel a week of games.
Long before four Dinos players ― Park Sok-min, Kwon Hui-dong, Lee Myung-ki and Park Min-woo ― breached Covid regulations by gathering in a Seoul hotel room with two acquaintances to eat chicken and drink beer, NC were already having a disappointing season. They eventually finished in seventh place, becoming the first defending champions to miss out on a chance to defend their title since 2010.
Lee twins banned from Korean Volleyball
This year was a rollercoaster ride for Korean women's volleyball, as former V League favorites Lee Da-young and Lee Jae-young were embroiled in a scandal in February when a former middle school teammate of the pair accused them of being bullies when in school, listing 21 specific allegations including claims that one of the sisters threatened her with a knife.
The Korean national team indefinitely suspended the twins, a big blow for the squad ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, and also banned them from ever holding coaching positions. The Heungkuk Life Insurance Pink Spiders also dropped the players, briefly considering bringing them back in the summer before public opinion flared up again.
No longer able to continue their volleyball careers in Korea, the twins signed with Greek club PAOK Thessaloniki, relying on the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball's permission after Korea's KOVO tried to block the move.
SK Wyverns sell club to SSG and SSG Landers are born
SK Telecom in January unexpectedly announced that it was selling its KBO baseball club, the SK Wyverns, to Emart for 135.2 billion won ($114 million). With the sale, the Wyverns became the 13th KBO team name to disappear into the history books 16 years after being founded in Incheon, and the SSG Landers were born.
The Landers are the sixth professional baseball team to call Incheon home, following in the hallowed footsteps of the Sammi Superstars, the Chungbo Pintos, the Taepyungyang Dolphins the Hyundai Unicorns and of course the Wyverns.
Despite the somewhat unconventional name choice, the newly re-branded team got started on the right foot, signing major league veteran slugger Choo Shin-soo in February.
The Landers had a fairly solid season, remaining in the top half of the table for the majority of the year before slipping into sixth place in the last few weeks. The Incheon club missed out on a spot in the playoffs, but look strong for next season.
BY JIM BULLEY AND YUN SO-HYANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]