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No Fanfare for Korean Athletes in Lesser Known Sports

Posted August. 22, 2008 13:39,   


“There is neither spotlight nor cheers.”

This is a comment from a TV commercial about the women’s national handball team. Every four years, many athletes compete in unpopular sports at the Olympics. Events in which Koreans have a chance of winning a medal receive tremendous attention over the competition.

Many other events, however, barely register a blip on Korea`s radar. For ignored athletes who sweat it out in poor facilities for years, making it past the preliminary is more precious than winning the gold. Qualifying gives them hope of standing shoulder to shoulder with the world`s elite athletes if they do their best.

Lee Jung-joon, 24, a rising star of Korean track and field, became the first Korean to advance from the preliminary round of the men’s 110 meter hurdle Monday at 13.65 seconds.

He even broke the Korean record of 13.56 seconds that he held in the second round by 0.01 second. Lee finished sixth out of the eight competitors and was far behind Cuba’s Dayron Robles, 22, who won with a time of 13.19 seconds.

“I’ve learned a lot from my first Olympics and realized that I have to greatly upgrade my technical skills,” he said. Unfortunately, he could not qualify for the semifinals since he was 18th in the overall rankings.

Female kayaker Lee Soon-ja, 30, the first Korean to qualify for the Olympics by herself in 25 years, was eliminated in the preliminary Tuesday. She finished last out of eight in the women’s 500-meter single.

She had to prepare everything required to compete in the event. No one greeted her in Beijing or helped her adapt to the city or do paperwork. She even had a hard time receiving an accreditation card to get access to the stadium.

Lee Soon-ja also had to borrow a kayak in a hurry in China because she could not bring her own due to transportation costs. She had to practice by herself as she had no interpreter to communicate with her Hungarian coach, whom she recruited last year.

“Though the loneliness and difficulty I encountered were indescribable, I really did my best. I learned a lot from this big event, these Olympics. I finished last but I’m satisfied,” she said.

Choi Jun-sang, 30, another self-starter who qualified for the Olympics in equestrian, finished 46 out of 47 competitors in the individual event last Friday. Given that one player gave up in the middle of the game, he practically finished dead last.

Choi is Asia’s top equestrian competitor, winning in individual and group events over two consecutive Asiads. He spent 11 months abroad to train prior to the Olympics, but found he was nowhere near the world’s elite in the sport.

“Since I have a goal, I’m not ashamed of my result. I will definitely compete in the 2012 London Olympics,” he said.

Son Seong-cheol, Korea’s only diving competitor, also finished last out of 29 competitors in the men`s three-meter preliminary. Winner He Chong of China received 515.5 points, more than 160 points higher than Son. Son did not go to the semifinals.

Securing his ticket to the Olympics in February, Son had to live alone in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, for six months because the swimming center at Taeneung Training Center in Seoul has no diving boards. The only person who rooted for him by the pool was his coach.

Cyclist Park Sung-baek, 24, finished 88th out of 90 competitors Aug. 10 in his 245.4 km race circling the Great Wall of China seven times. “I’ve fulfilled my dream of completing the race. The most terrifying part was alienation and indifference towards me,” he said.

Park competes in men’s individual cycling, an event Koreans have not participated in since the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Female cyclist Lee Min-hye, 23, also finished last in the point race. She was almost one lap behind by the time the leaders finished the race.

Shot putter Lee Mi-young was also eliminated in the preliminaries for finishing last out of 17 players.