[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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[The Korea Herald] Should foreign athletes get special naturalization?

By John Power

Never has it been more difficult to define what it means to be Korean. Unprecedented immigration to the country in recent years, and the demographic and cultural change brought with it, has challenged the assumption that Korean citizenship and ethnicity are synonymous. Inevitably, this blurring of identity has crossed into the realm of sport.

The Korean Olympic Committee last month rejected a bid by Brazilian footballer Eninho for special naturalization that would have allowed the K-League star to play for the national side. Despite the Korea Football Association and national side coach Choi Kang-Hee supporting his naturalization, the KOC ruled against the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors midfielder on the grounds that the player failed to demonstrate a basic understanding of Korean language and culture. The Ministry for Justice, which has the final say on cases of naturalization, is expected to follow the KOC’s recommendation.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ Eninho recently had the KOC recommend against his application for special naturalization. (Yonhap News)

Since the introduction of dual nationality in certain cases in January 2011, the KOC has made recommendations for special naturalization on behalf of four athletes, three in basketball and one in speed skating, all of which were successful.

Despite its brief as a sporting organization, the KOC takes into account cultural familiarity when making recommendations on naturalization. When asked why by The Korea Herald, considering that the decision ultimately rests with the Justice Ministry, a spokesman for the KOC referred to the current law.

“According to the Nationality Act article 7, one must have good conduct, have Korean language abilities and an understanding of Korea customs as basic requirements even in the case of naturalization, as written in the Nationality Act article 5,” said the spokesman who did not wish to be named.

“The opinions of the Korea Football Association and national team coach are taken into account in regard to sporting ability, but as this is a question of double nationality, other factors have been considered also.”

A spokesman at the KFA said the football association fully respected the KOC’s decision, saying it “was the end of the story” as far as appealing the decision.

The spokesman, who did not wish to be named, went on to say that the benefits of naturalization made it a sensitive issue.

“If you acquire Korean citizenship it means you can play in Asian Football Confederation countries as a non-foreign player so a huge benefit can be given by acquiring Korean citizenship,” he said.

Public acceptance

Regardless of legal decisions made at the governmental level, there remains the question of how accepting the general public is of visible minorities representing the nation.

“It seems that Koreans do not mind having ― or even like to have ― foreign athletes in certain professional sports such as baseball, basketball, etc. as long as they play well. I think that the demands for good foreign players in professional/commercial sports will continue and foreign athletes can play an important role there,” said Park Jung-sun, a professor of Asian Pacific Studies at California State University with an interest in South Korean identity and citizenship.

Park believes, however, that the Korean notion of “one blood” may mean the general public is not yet ready to embrace athletes with an outwardly foreign appearance. The public might be more welcoming toward athletes of Korean ancestry seen as “returning home” and “representing the homeland,” however.

“The Korean public may show a sense of disapproval, reluctance or even bewilderment if those foreign athletes are included in a ‘national team’ that represents Korea in the Olympics or similar international events. Although Koreans’ exposure to and understanding of multiculturalism have increased over the years, Koreans’ notions of ‘us’ and the nation are still, by and large, grounded on their shared blood.”

This view was echoed by the spokesman for the KFA.

“Cultural familiarity is quite significant for many conservative Korean people to allow foreign-born, foreign blood (people to play), obviously having a different appearance from the general Korean public. Still, Korean society is not fully open … we are in the process of (dealing with) that.”

Time needed

Stressing that it was his personal opinion rather than that of his organization, he said that Korea was still not ready for foreign-born players donning the national colors.

“It needs time to have a foreign player as a national player wearing the red shirt as a Korean representative, it needs time. It is not the right time or place, I think.”

Ko Seong-kyeong, a professor at the Department of Physical Education at Daegu University, believes that a public consensus is vital in any approach to the issue, whatever the opinion of sporting and governmental institutions.

“We must consider several factors for granting some foreign athletes special citizenship. Although some foreign players satisfied the legal guideline for citizenship and were permitted citizenship, we need public agreement. Especially, we have many native players in football, baseball and basketball. Therefore, before honoring national team players, we must try to make a public agreement.”

Koh emphasized, however, that foreign athletes have already made a major contribution to professional sport here.

Valuable contribution

“The foreign athletes playing in Korean leagues are very important to developing Korean professional sports. They are influencing the performance of native athletes to develop sports skill, manage and maintain fitness, and communicate with mass media. The native players have known about all this, but have not applied it in their sports fields. Therefore, Korean players have emulated them and have improved their sports ability.”

Another consideration is the risk of special consideration for athletes causing resentment ― both among Koreans and other immigrants.

“In the case of male athletes, the mandatory military service is a crucial issue,” said Park. “Hence, if a young foreign male athlete of military service age were granted citizenship without the obligation, it would generate much resentment and controversy.

“(Also), individuals who wish to gain Korean citizenship have to meet certain criteria. The criteria have been an obstacle to many foreigners including those with Korean heritage such as Korean Chinese. Thus, unless the same yardsticks are used for both athletes and non-athletes, it may generate resentment.”

KOC’s spokesman acknowledged this concern.

“We are aware that special naturalization is a privilege as compared to normal naturalization in which one must discard their original nationality. When considering the purpose of such a system, we believe that special naturalization cases should be constrained to thorough evaluation.”