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Behind Korea’s prowess in archery and skating

Feb 02,2018
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At the Olympics, Korea has traditionally excelled in two sports: archery at the Summer Games and short-track speed skating at the Winter Games.

The sports could not be more different - archery a game of quiet precision and speed skating a brash display of force on ice - but the amount of resources that Korea has committed to making them both the country’s powerhouse sports is unparalleled.

Of the 90 gold medals that Korea has won at the Summer Olympics, more than a quarter of them, 23, have come from archery. Including silver and bronze, the number rises to 39.

In the Winter Olympics, 21 out of 26 gold medals have come from short-track speed skating.

One of the factors behind Korea’s stellar performance in both sports is a regimented training program that starts scouting potential athletes from their youth. After Seo Hyang-soon won the country’s first gold medal in archery at the 1984 Summer Games and Kim Ki-hoon won gold in short-track at the 1992 Winter Games, the government beefed up its training programs in the two sports.

The increased rigor and active recruitment meant there were new prospects coming out every year. Coaches quip that national team trials are more competitive than the actual Olympic Games.

As a result, the national team roster changes with every Olympics. There is a constant supply of fresh faces. For the upcoming Winter Games, only two short-track skaters - Shim Suk-hee, 21, and Kwak Yoon-gy, 29 - have competed in a prior Olympics. The other eight members of the short-track team are newcomers.

Similarly at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, Ki Bo-bae, 30, was the only one who had Olympic experience on the national archery team. The other five members were participating in their first Games.

There’s another similarity between the Korean archery and short-track teams: Women overwhelmingly outperform men.

Since the 1988 Seoul Games, the women’s archery team won gold medals in group competitions eight consecutive times, while the men’s team only won five times.

In individual competitions, female archers have won gold medals at every single Olympics since 1984, except once in Beijing. That’s eight gold medals compared to the men’s two medals.

“When the Olympics happen, male archers feel pressure to perform as well as the women’s team,” said Lee Chang-hwan, a gold medalist in the men’s team event at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

In short-track, women have won 11 of Korea’s 21 gold medals. At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, only the women’s team won gold medals - in 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter relays. For the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the women expect to sweep all their events.

“Their attitude toward hard-core training is different,” said Chun Lee-kyung, a gold medalist from the 1994 and 1998 Winter Games who is now head coach of Singapore’s short-track team. “Female skaters tend to take hard-core training better than male skaters.”

The dominant performance of Korean athletes in short-track is said to have led to rule changes banning certain tactics that Korean athletes overwhelmingly used. For example, a rule was introduced for speed skating after the 1998 Nagano Winter Games where skaters must keep their front blade on the ice at the finish line.

Before, Korean skaters would propel themselves beyond the finish line by swinging their bodies forward and throwing their feet ahead.

“If we performed new tactics or used new gloves, all of the other skaters were doing the exact same thing at the next race,” recalled Kim, Korea’s first gold medalist in short-track.

Despite Korea’s dominance in the two sports, the country is facing rising competition from China. “China competes with the attitude that they only need to beat Korea,” a Korea Skating Union official said. “In preliminary rounds that are not broadcasted, they play more aggressively.”

In a famous incident at the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, Fan Kexin of China pushed on Shim’s knee with her hand at the last corner of the final 500-meter race, allowing her teammate Zhan Yize to skate past Shim and win gold.

Fan was disqualified for the action, and Shim was moved up to third.

Still, Korea remains a top performer in archery and speed skating, and retired athletes from both sports often get recruited to coach teams in other countries.

The U.S. archery team led by Coach Lee Ki-sik won the men’s group competition in the 2012 London Olympics, and in short-track speed skating, Jang Kwon-ok coached Apolo Ohno, who won eight Olympic medals throughout his career.

BY KIM WON, CHOI SOO-YOUNG [choi.sooyoung@joongang.co.kr]