[The Korea Herald] How can Korea nurture better Olympians?

By John Power

It has been a tumultuous first week for Korea at the 2012 London Olympic Games. The disqualification of four of its badminton players, a number of controversial judging decisions and underwhelming performances have led to an at times rocky competition for the nation.

Nevertheless, team Korea had by Sunday easily met its goal of 10 gold medals and looks certain to make a top-10 finish in the medal standings. Korea has made the top 10 at six of the last seven Games, an impressive accomplishment for a country competing among a host of richer and more populous nations. The country is expected to bag more medals with the start of taekwondo, the national sport, at the Games on Wednesday.

It is entirely possible that Korea could best its record of 13 gold medals that it took home at the last Olympics by the competition’s end. Koreans, however, are not known for resting on their laurels, and expectations are ever growing.

Jin Jong-oh stands on the podium after winning gold in the men’s 50-meter pistol on Sunday. (Yonhap News)

“When considering the Korean population, a top-10 medal standing is a surprising goal in the Olympic Games, yet many people still want a higher medal rank. Recently, we can see the change of attitude about it,” said Ko Seong-kyeong, a professor at the Department of Physical Education at Daegu University.

Facilities

Better medal rankings require better athletes ― how to nurture them is the question. The Korean Olympic Committee declined to comment, but part of the answer must come down to the country’s facilities for its national athletes, which have seen major development in recent years.

The country has two national training centers for its athletes: the Korea National Training Center in Taeneung in Seoul and the Jincheon Training Center in North Chungcheong Province, which only opened last year at a cost of 184 billion won ($163 million). Neither of the two centers responded to requests for comment in time for publication. The government also provides considerable incentives to high-performing athletes: medalists can receive exemption from military service, as well as benefit from a special government pension.

“We have continuously improved athletes’ training conditions, with two national training centers for competitive sports prepared and many other training complexes also established by local governments,” said Ko.

Advances in the science of sports have also had a big impact on Korea’s sporting success, Ko added.

“The sports science has developed with hardware during that period. Korea Sports Science Institute was established in 1980, in which a lot of sports scientists have contributed to improving athletic performance. Especially some sports like archery, gymnastics and skating have achieved great results.”

Chung Jae-yong, a sports journalist with Korea Broadcasting System, believes that Korea can realistically aim higher in the medal rankings in the years to come. But first, the country needs to change its “authoritarian” approach to fostering athletes.

“I definitely think a top five instead of top 10 is a possible goal in the future. However, to achieve this, Korea should change its approach to athletics. The state sport system’s authoritarianism limits the number of participants in athletics. Korea should launch a balanced system between athletics and academia so that it can expand the number of participants and also draw better talent.”

In his paper “The Authoritarian Policy in South Korean Sport: A Critical Perspective,” published in the European Journal of Social Sciences, Chung argues that much of the present system for selecting and training athletes retains the authoritarian basis of its establishment during the Park Chung-hee era. Park and subsequent leaders’ focus on using international sporting events as a tool for propaganda, Chung says, has led to a system which neglects the educational needs and well-being of athletes and the sporting needs of the general public.

“Especially for those student athletes who represent the country, their rights to be educated as normal kids are extremely limited once they are in the national training center,” said Chung.

“This issue should be addressed. Regarding athletes in general, the numbers of gyms and fields are not enough.”

Education issues

The student-athlete code, by which colleges and high schools allocate up to 3 percent of admission places to student athletes regardless of test scores, is one controversial legacy of the Park era. For young athletes, a majority of whom do not attend class regularly according to research, pursuing an education while training and competing remains a challenge. Having missed out on their education as young competitors, athletes can risk an uncertain future upon retirement.

“Many school (-aged) athletes have been absent from regular classes for their training and preparing for the Games, and some of them seem to record very low results in their school reports,” said Ko. “Athletes have to participate in the regular classes and sports leaders must guarantee it.”

For the long term, Chung sees that fundamental change is inevitable.

“Although there are signals that show the sport system is on the verge of change, the Korean government needs to keep pushing sport reform with a long-term plan … Major sports reform is inevitable not only for the human rights of athletes but also for better performance. The authoritarian system which was pretty effective in the old days is now hurting the growth of participants and blocking the best talent to dedicate their career to sports.”

Providing post-retirement opportunities and more facilities for the general public would go some toward better athletes in the future, according to Cho Young-han, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, who has writen papers on sport and nationalism.

“More infrastructure is needed: in terms of infrastructure, I mean more sport facilities ― not only for elite athletes, but also for general practitioners ― balanced education for elite athletes, and possible job opportunities as elite athletes and as trainers after retirement,” said Cho.

“If they are provided enough, more youth will get into sporting activities, which in turn (will) produce more talented athletes at the Olympics.”

Areas for growth

While it has shown Olympic prowess in recent decades, Korea’s success has not extended evenly across disciplines. Though Korea has excelled at archery and taekwondo, and had success in swimming, among other events, there remains obvious room for improvement in track-and-field.

“These track-and-field events, gymnastics and swimming are not popular sports in Korea,” said Ko.

“So many promising athletes have changed to popular sports because they can increase their possibility of success as a sports star.”

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