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2019 A Year in sport

Dec 30,2019
While 2018 will be remembered as a year packed full of major international sporting events, 2019 was all about the individual performances. In baseball, football and golf, Korean athletes dominated headlines, setting new records and hitting new milestones on the international stage.

Of course 2019 did have its share of international events — Korea shone at the U-20 World Cup and hosted the successful FINA World Aquatics Championships but could only manage a tie in a closed-door game in Pyongyang. Domestically, the Doosan Bears pulled off one of the most dramatic ends to a season the KBO has ever seen.

The Korea JoongAng Daily takes a look back at the biggest stories from another huge sporting year.


Ryu Hyun-jin’s historic year

After a strong 2018 season, Ryu Hyun-jin started 2019 as the opening day starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers, becoming only the second Korean pitcher ever to start on opening day. Ryu picked up a win, and never looked back.

At 32 years old, it’s fair to say that not many people expected injury-prone Ryu to be as strong as he was this year. Ryu rounded off the 2019 season with 14 wins and 5 losses with an ERA at 2.32. Along the way, Ryu tossed his second complete shutout on May 7, going on to pitch 31 consecutive shutout innings over the following games. He was Major League Pitcher of the Month in May, appeared as starting pitcher in the All-Star Game in July and even hit his career first home run in September.

Ryu maintained exceptional stats throughout the season, holding on to the lowest ERA in the entire MLB for a good part of the season, along with a consistently good WHIP and league-leading numbers in a whole range of less well-known categories.

Ryu capped off the year coming in second in Cy Young Award voting, becoming the first Korean ever to get a nomination and first Asian pitcher to ever earn a first-place vote in the process.


KBO season ends with a bang

The Doosan Bears pulled off something of a coup this year, stealing the KBO’s regular season title from the SK Wyverns on the very last day of play.

The Wyverns held first place since May but started to tumble in September, allowing a resurgent Bears team to narrow the difference until it came down to the final day, with Doosan trailing by just 0.5 games.

Despite falling behind the NC Dinos for the entire final game, the Bears came through in the bottom of the ninth to take the lead, win the game and tie the season with the Wyverns.

The Bears then took the pennant because they finished with a better head-to-head record than the Wyverns.

The victory was only the third time in KBO history that the winning team has been finalized on the very last day of the season, and the Bears are the first team ever to win the title with a zero game difference.

The Bears went on to win the Korean Series too, beating the Kiwoom Heroes to take both titles.


Son Heung-min is still on top

Tottenham Hotspurs’ star player Son Heung-min seems to get better every season.

Although we didn’t see much action from him with the national team this year, with his English Premier League club, Son is at the top of his game. He first made headlines in April, when he became the first-ever player to score at Spurs’ new stadium, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Then, by scoring some crucial goals for Spurs, he helped the Premier League club advance all the way to the finals at the UEFA Championship League in May. Though Spurs lost, Son became the second Korean footballer ever to play in the UEFA Champions League final.

Once the 2019-20 season started, Son made history in November by breaking the record for the most goals ever scored by a Korean player in European football.

Off the field, he also became the top Asian finisher ever in voting for the Ballon d’Or Award.

Just days later, Son scored what could be the goal of the season. During a Premier League match against Burnley FC, Son sprinted the length of the pitch to score Spurs’ third goal of the match unassisted.


Ko Jin-young wins everything

The 2019 LPGA Tour was all about Ko Jin-young.

Ko first picked up her first win of the season in March at the Bank of Hope Founder Cup, adding a second just two weeks later at the ANA Inspiration, the first major tournament of the year. That second win took her straight to the No. 1 spot, a position she has almost constantly held on to since then.

But Ko was only just getting started. On July 28, she picked up her third win of the season at the Evian Championship, the fourth major of the year. Then, a month later, she added another win at the CP Women’s Open. Ko won the most number of titles this year and swept all four LPGA Tours’ season-long individual titles. Along with her four wins, Ko also picked up a win on the KLPGA Tour, winning the Hite Jinro Championship in October.

This year, Ko walked away with the money title, the Vare Trophy, awarded to the player with the lowest scoring average throughout the season, the Rolex Player of the Year award and the Annika Major Award.

Ko is only the second player, after Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand last year, to sweep four titles while holding the No. 1 spot.


Korea hosts FINA Championships

The FINA Championships, an international competition featuring the world’s top athletes, was held from July 12 to 28 in Gwangju. Over 2,600 athletes from around the world took part, representing 191 countries.

A total of 76 events were competed in across six different sports — swimming, diving, high diving, open water swimming, artistic swimming and water polo.

Kim Su-ji picked up Korea’s only medal — a bronze in the women’s 1 meter springboard — becoming the first Korean diver to ever win a medal and the first athlete since swimmer Park Tae-hwan in 2011 to medal at the world championships.

The medal table was dominated by China and the United States, with China taking first place with 16 gold, 11 silver and 3 bronze medals, followed by the United States with 15 gold, 11 silver and 10 bronze. Russia, Australia and Hungary rounded off the top five.

The FINA Championships was followed by the FINA World Masters Championships, an amateur competition between swimming clubs, with 6,000 competitors taking part.


Im Sung-jae makes history

Im Sung-jae failed to pick up a win on his debut season on the PGA Tour, but his consistency was good enough to win him the PGA Tour’s 2018-19 season Rookie of the Year award.

While Koreans have been dominating the LPGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year award for years, Im is the first ever Asian-born player to win PGA Rookie of the Year honors. As Im also won the Rookie of the Year award on the Web.com Tour, now called the Korn Ferry Tour, last season, he also became only the second player ever to win the top rookie award on both tours in consecutive seasons.

Throughout the season, Im competed in 35 tournaments and made the cut 26 times, recording seven top-10 finishes. This was good enough for him to qualify for the season-ending Tour Championship, which is open to the top 30 players in FedEx Cup points. Im was the only rookie to compete in the tournament.

His consistency was also good enough to catch the eyes of Ernie Els, the captain of the International Team at the Presidents Cup. Im was chosen as one of four captain’s picks and competed at the biennial event to round off a huge year.


U-20 team promises bright future

Last year, the Korean national football team crashed out of the FIFA World Cup but defeated Germany at the last minute to leave with style — this year, it was the young U-20 squad that caused a bigger upset.

The U-20 Korean team advanced all the way to the finals at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland back in June. Although it walked away with a runner-up finish by losing 3-1 to Ukraine, it still managed the best finish at a FIFA tournament by any Korean men’s team ever.

Following the final, Lee Kang-in of Valencia CF was named the winner of the Golden Ball Award. Throughout the tournament Lee scored two goals with four assists, meaning that he was involved in all six of Korea’s goals.

Lee was the first Korean male footballer, and only the second Asian player in the history of the men’s FIFA U-20 World Cup, to win the award.

His win was even more impressive because the Golden Ball has traditionally been awarded to the best player from the winning team of the tournament. For this award, notable winners include Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi of Argentina and Paul Pogba of France.


Choo Shin-soo keeps getting better

At age 37, Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers proved age is just a number with another huge season in the major leagues. Choo was the oldest Korean playing in the majors this year, but his age didn’t stop him from making headlines.

Going into the season, it seemed pretty unlikely that Choo would be able to top last year, when the veteran slugger had an astounding 52-game on-base streak. This year, it was all about the home runs.

In June, Choo hit his 200th home run after 15 years in the majors. By doing so, he became the first Asian player in MLB history to hit more than 200 career home runs. Throughout the 2019 season, Choo hit 24 home runs, a new career high and the seventh time in his major league career that he has hit over 20 home runs in a single season.

The veteran also picked up his 1,500th career major league hit in April. He ended the season with a 0.265 batting average with 24 home runs and 61 RBIs.

Whether Choo can keep up his momentum next year remains to be seen. He was the eighth-oldest player in the American League this year and underwent shoulder surgery when the season ended.


KSOC struggles with scandals

The Korean Sport & Olympic Committee (KSOC) was once again at the center of controversy this year after it was embroiled in another string of scandals, starting with the accusation that two-time Olympic gold medalist short track skater Shim Suk-hee had been raped by her former coach Cho Jae-beom.

Cho was imprisoned last year for physically abusing Shim, and the elite skater then reported in January that he had also raped her, including at official training facilities.

Following Shim’s revelation, judoka Shin Yu-yong revealed that she had been raped by her coach throughout high school. Shin had reported her coach to police a year earlier, but decided to go public when the case wasn’t progressing.

Just a few months later, short track skater Kim Gun-woo was given a one-month ban for sneaking into the women’s dormitories, and then in the summer, the entire short track team was expelled from training after one male skater pulled down the pants of a younger male teammate during training while the female skaters were present.


South vs. North in an empty stadium

One of the most highly anticipated international sporting events this year for fans of the Taeguk Warriors was the long-awaited face-off with North Korea in its home stadium in Pyongyang.

The game, a 2022 World Cup qualifier, ended with a scoreless draw that nobody saw because North Korea closed the stadium doors and banned all foreign media from entering the country.

Asian Football Confederation (AFC) officials attending the game were able to relay match updates to the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which then passed the information on to the Korea Football Association.

North Korea later provided a DVD of the 0-0 match to South Korea, which showed that it was a tense, physical game with a few attempts at offense on either side.

The 0-0 draw was a disappointing result for South Korea, who, at No. 37 in the world ranking, would have expected to easily defeat the 113th-ranked North Korea.

The two Koreas will face each other again on June 4, 2020, for the second leg of the qualifier.



After a year of individual brilliance, 2020 will see major international sporting events return to the fore.

The highlight of next year’s sporting calendar is of course the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in July and August, as well as the Paralympics that follow. The year will begin in January with the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship, while in May, the first Seoul E-Prix will hit the streets of the capital.

Chung Hyeon will once again look to bounce back from another injury-laden year as the tennis season enters full swing at the start of the year, and Korea’s speed skating and short track teams will endeavor to return to their former glory. Elsewhere on the ice, figure skating protege Lee Hae-in will hope for another strong year.

Ryu Hyun-jin, Son Heung-min, Ko Jin-young and the other international stars will fly the flag for Korea in their respective leagues around the world, looking to build on this year’s success.

BY JIM BULLEY AND KANG YOO-RIM [jim.bulley@joongang.co.kr]