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Korea’s Olympic moments and hopes

The London 2012 Olympics are less than a week away. London has significant meaning in Korean Olympics history. The 1948 London Olympics were the first Olympics where Korea won its first medals, both bronze: Kim Seong-jip for weightlifting and Han Su-an for boxing. Sixty-four years later, Korea is hoping to make new historic moments in the same city, with the Olympic slogan “From London to London.”

Historic moments. These are some of the Olympic moments which Koreans will always remember.

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Sohn Kee-chung won the gold medal in the marathon. However, Korea being under Japanese rule at the time, he did not run with the Korean flag taegeukgi on his chest. However, in a show of Korean pride, the daily Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo ran a photo of Sohn with the Japanese flag erased, which caused its publication to be suspended.

Independence came in 1945 and Korea officially participated as the Republic of Korea at the 1948 London Olympics for the first time. The first medals gave hope to the nation which was trying to establish itself internationally.

88 Seoul Olympics' ‘88 Seoul Olympics' logo (photo courtesy of Korea Olympic Committee)

The Korean War erupted soon after (June 25, 1950 - July 27, 1953). Despite the state of turmoil, Korea managed to participate in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where bronze medals were won for weightlifting and boxing.

Weightlifting and boxing were also medal-winning events at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. In the Olympics to come, although the medals were few, Koreans showed its promise in weightlifting, boxing, wrestling, and judo. It was in the 1976 Montreal Olympics where Korea finally won its first gold medal with Yang Jeong-mo in wrestling.

Korea sincerely jumped into the international sports scene in the 1980s. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Korea won a total of 19 medals, six of them gold -- an incredible feat considering the country had been in a state of extreme poverty a couple of decades earlier.

Besides medals in the usual favorite fields of wrestling, boxing, and judo, the most memorable medals came from the female athletes: Winning women’s singles in archery, Seo Hyang-soon became the first Korean woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Against all odds, the women’s basketball team won silver. So did the women’s handball team.

In 1988, the Olympics were hosted in Seoul. The 1988 Seoul Olympics were a huge turning point for Korea, not only in the arena of sports but also socially. Korea became a more open country, a more internationally aware country; the impact of hosting a large international event was huge. Because of the excitement it created, the 1988 Olympics are usually remembered as a whole instead of pinpoint moments.

Perhaps due to the hometown advantage (especially the loud, enthusiastically cheering crowds), Korea did exceptionally well with a total of 33 medals. Koreans, both women and men, swept most of the archery events; table tennis stars were born in gold medalists Yu Nam-gyu, Kim Ki-taek, Hyeon Jung-hwa, and Yang Young-ja, the women’s handball team got the gold this time while the men received silver, and of course, wrestling, boxing, and judo were all medal-winning events.

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics were equally successful, but are best remembered for the last sprint of marathoner Hwang Young-jo as he edged out his competition to win the gold medal, 56 years after the first marathon gold of Sohn Kee-chung. The cheers that roared through Korean households could be heard all around the nation.

The women’s handball team repeated their gold medal glory, as did most of the archery athletes, and badminton pulled through with a slew of medals including gold. Koreans also did well in wrestling, boxing, judo -- the ever reliable sports. Gold medals in shooting sports were a pleasant surprise.

Archer Seo Hyang-soon is the first Korean woman to win Olympic goldArcher Seo Hyang-soon is the first Korean woman to win Olympic gold (photo courtesy of Korea Olympic Committee).

In a relatively short time (and for being a small country), Korea was taking sports and the Olympics quite seriously and the effort being taken was showing up in the results. In the next couple of Olympic Games, it now became “normal” for Korea to be good in archery, judo, wrestling, and table tennis. Competitors in badminton, women’s handball, and women’s field hockey were also steadily establishing themselves.

Korea’s national sport, the martial art of taekwondo became an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Additional to the gold medal “regulars” of archery and wrestling, taekwondo took its place on the stand. Kim Young-ho won Korea’s first gold medal in fencing, a little-known sport at the time.

The historic 2004 Olympics in Athens, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, were the usual fare for Korea, although that doesn’t mean Koreans were blasé about it. Every medal won was greeted with as much enthusiasm as ever; competition was becoming fiercer and fiercer in Korea’s best sports such as archery, table tennis, and judo, and Koreans were well aware of the worth of each medal.

The issue-maker of those games were the twice gold medalists women’s handball team who won the silver after a suspense-filled, gut-wrenching final game that went into a shoot-out. This story was even made into a feature film in 2008 titled Forever the Moment.

At the most recent games, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was the national baseball team that provoked such deep emotions. Undefeated, the team made it to the final gold medal game when all seemed to go wrong, but prevailed in the end to win the gold medal.

Park Tae-hwan aims for goldMarine Boy Park Tae-hwan aims for gold (photo courtesy of Korea Olympic Committee).

There were other memorable gold medals as well: Park Tae-hwan became the first Korean to win a gold medal (and silver) in swimming at the Olympics and promptly earned himself the nickname “Marine Boy.” Jang Mi-ran, who won silver at the previous Olympics, won gold in women’s weightlifting, another first. In badminton, Lee Yong-dae became a star with his gold medal and boyish good looks. Archery and table tennis were nail-biters, with China in hot pursuit.

So it brings us to London, again. 2012 London, where Korea is hoping to excel, to exceed expectations. We are looking forward to Park Tae-hwans strong strokes in the water, Jang Mi-ran’s determination as she lifts the barbell, the national archery team’s dominance, the spirit of the taekwondo athletes resounding in the arena, the badminton players showing off what they’re made of, and the die-hard attitude in table tennis, wrestling, boxing, handball, fencing, shooting sports, and field hockey.

We are hoping for surprises, too. The national football team is gearing up. Although Korea has won medals in men’s gymnastics before, star-in-the-making Sohn Yeon-jae is trying to open up a new field in women’s rhythm gymnastics. Athletes will be testing themselves in the lesser-known sports of modern pentathlon and triathlon. Yachting is another field which Korea is trying to break into.

The Olympics are always about personal triumphs and national pride. There is much to admire about the athletes who endeavor to obtain both through years and years of dedicated study and training. Trying one’s best is a virtue which everyone respects.

With less than a week away, Korean athletes would be anxious to get the games started. Koreans are anxious to cheer them on and be there for their moments of glory. More than that, Koreans will also be there for their moments of defeat, ready to cheer them on again for the next games to come.

“From London to London,” Korea is ready. Let the 2012 London Olympics begin!

By Suzy Chung
Contributor/The Korea Blog Blogger

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