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Younger athletes play to win, but also to have fun

Players no longer feel weight of the nation’s dignity upon them
Feb 20,2018
이미지뷰
From left: Short tracker Kim Do-kyoum, left, with speed skater Lee Sang-hwa in Gangneung Olympic Village on Feb. 7. Short tracker Seo Yi-ra celebrates after winning bronze at the men’s 1,000 meters final on Saturday at the Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangwon. Speed skaters Kim Hyun-yung, far right, and Park Seung-hi, second from right, take a selfie with two volunteers at the Gangneung Olympic Village on Feb. 13. [YONHAP, NEWS1]
GANGNEUNG, Gangwon - The gap between older Korean athletes and those in their teens and 20s is revealing itself more than ever at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, where the mood seems far lighter than it was among Korean athletes in the past.

Before facing Japan at the 1954 FIFA World Cup, the Korean football team members vowed to then-Korean President Syngman Rhee that they would leap to their own deaths in the Korea Strait if they lost.

Fortunately, the team did not lose, but tied 2-2 in the preliminaries. Korea eventually made it to the finals in Switzerland, where they bowed out after humble losses to Hungary and Turkey.

Professional Korean boxer Kim Duk-koo, on the other hand, was not so lucky.

Kim won the Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation lightweight title in February 1982 and was seen as the No. 1 contender for the world lightweight championship in the United States.

That same year, Kim proclaimed that he would “not come down from the ring alive” if he lost to then-American lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in Las Vegas.

The boxer even reportedly wrote in Korean “live or die” on his Las Vegas hotel lampshade.

He mostly kept his promise.

Kim fell into a coma and died four days after Mancini threw a fatal straight that snapped Kim’s head back at the beginning of the 14th round.

But at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, winning no longer seems to be taken with the same seriousness. Emphasis is not focused solely on the results, but also on having fun.

Despite falling during the men’s 1,000-meter short-track race on Saturday, skater Seo Yi-ra managed to win bronze for the nation.

“I was satisfied that I showed the South Korean people good races in the quarters, semis and finals,” he said. “So I can smile now.”

The short tracker is not only busy training for the Olympics, but was also found bustling around filming with his action camera during the athletes’ welcome ceremony at the Gangneung Olympic Village in Gangwon. At the Gangneung Ice Arena, where the matches are held, Seo has been busy taking selfies and pictures with his fans and volunteers.

Speed skater Park Seung-hi, who bagged two gold medals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics for the women’s short-track team, has also been busy posing for photos with her fans.

Though she has not won any medals with her new venture into speed skating, her legendary wins in short track are still hailed by fans and fellow athletes.

Park is even defending short tracker Elise Christie of Great Britain, who knocked her out during the women’s 500-meter race in Sochi, when Christie tripped. Korean netizens were quick to show their anger on social media after watching Park crash as she was taking the lead.

“Christie is a close friend,” said Park. “I wish our people would stop criticizing her.”

The former short tracker’s friendly attitude towards her old rival is something else that is not familiar to athletes from previous generations.

Korea’s mixed doubles curler Jang Hye-ji is even making a trend among Korean netizens after shouting to her partner, Lee Ki-jeong, that his “line is good” while he was delivering a stone during a curling match. Korean netizens have since taken the phrase and turned it into a tag on Instagram and other social media platforms.

“I think it’s the first time seeing Korean athletes enjoying themselves at the Olympics,” said mixed doubles curling Coach Jang Ban-seok.

According to Kim Yu-kyoum, sports marketing professor at Seoul National University, the changing views toward international sports events is due to a shift in values from collectivism to individualism among younger athletes.

“Up until the 1990s, Korean athletes were pressured to feel a sense of duty to make their country proud during the Olympics,” explained Kim. “The gold medal held the highest value and there were many athletes who cried when they won silver. But younger athletes place great emphasis on self-reliance and liberty. By their standards, just entering one of the greatest sports events is by itself a significant achievement.”

He pointed to freestyle skier Seo Jung-hwa’s performance as an example.

“Though freestyle skier Seo Jung-hwa placed 14th at the women’s mogul event,” said Kim, “she was still applauded for her fighting spirit after receiving painkillers for an injury to her pelvis.”

But this new trend does not apply to all athletes.

The legendary speed skater Lee Sang-hwa shed tears of disappointment after winning silver, losing to her longtime rival, Nao Kodaira of Japan, at the women’s 500-meter race on Sunday night. But they were also tears of joy for being “relieved of the pressure.”

Lee is a two-time Olympic gold medalist who came in first at the women’s 500-meter race both at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Given her previous records, she was highly anticipated by Koreans to win a third gold medal at the 500-meter race in Gangneung.

Though she did not take home gold, Lee still expressed her satisfaction with being done with the Olympics.

“It is an honor that I participated in the Olympics held in my country,” she said during an interview after her race. “I was so relieved to be able to brush away the pressure. But it’s all over. I’m okay.”

BY PARK RIN, KIM HYO-KYUNG AND LAURA SONG [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]