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From London to London: Korea Olympic retrospective

Seven days into the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, London is swarmed by Olympic travelers and press from around the world, rejuvenating the capital into a venue full of energetic vigor.

The Korea squad continues to excel in multiple categories, taking third place in the medal standings with seven gold medals as of August 2. The Korean government installed an on-site training camp in London, the first of its kind, to allow athletes to refine techniques and help deliver their best performances.

However, the situation is nothing like it was in 1948, harkening back to when London last hosted the Summer Olympics -- Korea’s first Olympic moment, during which the country made its first appearance as an independent nation under the Korean flag following liberation in 1945.

(above) Korea’s first-ever lottery aimed at supporting Team Korea’s participation in the 1948 Summer Olympic Games (photo courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration); (below) Numerous stamps affixed on the passport of cyclist Hwang San-ung demonstrate how exhausting the trip from Seoul to London might have been back then (photo courtesy of Lee Geum-hye, spouse of Hwang San-ung).

Back in 1948, postwar London was still in ruins, and Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite the prevailing poverty, Korean nationals joined hands to donate an accumulated amount equivalent to USD 80,000 through the Korean government’s Olympic lottery. The nation’s first lottery was aimed at raising funds to help support Team Korea’s participation in its first Olympics, allowing the country to dispatch its Olympians to Britain.

If London is nowadays easily reachable within less than an eleven-hour flight from Seoul, the journey to London took the pioneering 67-member squad 21 days by plane, ship and train. Departing from the port of Busan, the team had to make several stopovers at Fukuoka, Yokohama, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Calcutta, Mumbai, Baghdad, Cairo, Rome, and Amsterdam to finally arrive in London. The Korean athletes were billeted all over the place.

(left) Discus thrower Pak Bong-sik was the first and only female athlete to participate in the 1948 Summer Olympic Games; (right) Kim Sung-jip won the bronze medal in men’s middleweight weightlifting (photos courtesy of the Independence Hall of Korea).

Under the coarse conditions, Korea claimed two bronze medals in weightlifting and boxing, while publicizing the name of the newly-established nation to the international community.

Another historic anecdote on Korea’s first time participating in the Olympics unfolds around the theme of uniforms. In 1948, Korean athletes wore clothing manufactured with a winter-weight fabric, which soaked them with sweat. Yet, the classic outfit was validated 64 years later. Team Korea’s Opening Ceremony uniforms for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games have been rated among the best by Time Magazine, for their sophisticated style and tailoring inspired by the designs of the 1948 Olympic uniforms.

(above) The Korea squad enters the Olympic athlete’s village in London 1948 (photo courtesy of the Independence Hall of Korea); (below) members of the Korean team enter the Olympic Stadium during the London Olympic Games 2012 Opening Ceremony (photo courtesy of the Korean Olympic Committee).

While Korea has transitioned from one of the least developed countries buried under the ashes of the Korean War in the 1950s to an aid donor and member of the OECD Development Assistance Committee today, the nation’s sports scene has grown as well, stepping up in the Olympic medal count tally.

The Republic of Korea’s first Olympic gold medal was captured in the 1976 Montreal Olympics with featherweight freestyle wrestler Yang Jung-mo, who put an end to the 28-year Olympic gold draught. The country’s first Olympic champion also placed Korea 19th in the overall medal count, marking the country’s first top-20 finish.

(above) Yang Jung-mo claims the first Olympic gold for Korea in featherweight freestyle wrestling at the 1976 Montreal Olympics (photo courtesy of the Korean Olympic Committee); (below) the Olympic Flame burns at the 1988 Seoul Olympics (photo courtesy of National Archives of Korea).

Among Korea’s most noteworthy accomplishments in sports is the hosting of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. The largest-ever Olympiad up to that time put the host country at the center of attention worldwide, bringing the U.S. and USSR together for the first time in 12 years, transcending ideological confrontation under the theme of Peace, Harmony and Progress.

Korea continued to improve its performance, achieving fourth place in the 1988 Seoul Olympic medal standings, cumulating a total of twelve golds, ten silvers, and eleven bronze medals, following its tenth-place ranking at the 1984 Los Angeles.

The 2000 Sydney Games constituted the true magic of the Olympics. Athletes from South and North Korea marched together for the first time behind a unification flag under the name “Korea” during the opening ceremonies, reuniting the two countries of the divided peninsula.

The year of 2011 marked another important milestone in Korea’s Olympic participation history, as the 2018 Winter Olympics were awarded to the city of Pyeongchang in Gangwon Province. After the third consecutive bid to host the Winter Olympics, Pyeongchang finally heard its name called by International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge in South Africa last July.

(left) Team Korea comprising athletes from the two Koreas marches into the Olympics together at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games under the unification flag (photo: Yonhap News); (right) Pyeongchang finally heard its name called by IOC President Jacques Rogge on July 6, in Durban, South Africa as the host of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games (photo courtesy of Cheong Wa Dae).

Having staged major international sports competitions including the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, the IAAF Championships, and the Formula One Grand Prix, Korea has expanded its development assistance role into the domain of sports in a bid to realize the spirit of Olympianism.

The nation, which has grown into a sports powerhouse over the past six decades since its first Olympic appearance in 1948, returns to the UK eight Summer Olympics later with expectations and excitement growing ever-high. Team Korea now vies for the so-called 10-10 goal, aiming at more than ten golds and a top-ten finish in medal contention, and the national athletes continue to push the limits, while also helping make London 2012 a lifetime event that will “inspire a generation.”

Team Korea and world Olympians will participate in the weeks-long competition until August 12. For more information, click here.

By Hwang Dana Staff Writer

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