South Korea’s surprising success in Vancouver could be sign of things to come

By Nancy Armour, AP
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Surprising success bodes well for South Korea

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When Pyeongchang announced its intent to bid for the Winter Games, South Korean Olympic Committee president Y.S. Park heard snickers.

The Olympics? That’s what his friends in the International Olympic Committee asked. Surely South Korea meant the short track world championships.

“Our medals were only for short track,” Park said. “Now I can say proudly we have more medals, more capabilities to host other sports.”

With a record 14 medals at the Vancouver Olympics, including its first golds in sports other than short track, South Korea is emerging as a potential Winter Games powerhouse. The 14 medals are three more than its previous record, set four years ago in Turin, and put South Korea right up there with Russia and Austria, countries that have traditionally been big winners at the Winter Olympics.

Only Canada, Germany, the United States and Norway won more gold medals than the six claimed by South Korea.

“We have opened new doors, a new era for Korean winter sports,” Park said Saturday night at a lively party to celebrate South Korea’s success in Vancouver.

South Korea is likely to get even stronger in the coming years, too. Younger South Koreans are bigger and stronger, standing a full head tall than their parents. The next Winter Olympics are in Sochi, Russia, a mere six hours behind Seoul compared with 17 for Vancouver. Pyeongchang is bidding for the 2018 Games and, after two unsuccessful campaigns, is considered the early favorite in next year’s vote.

Host countries traditionally pump money and resources into development programs in the years leading up to the games, hoping to boost their medal count. Canada’s five-year, $117 million Own The Podium program translated into 14 gold medals here, a record for a Winter Games host.

“This is just a good beginning,” Park said.

Coming into Vancouver, South Korea had won 31 medals at the Winter Olympics, with all but two coming in short track. But winter sports are becoming increasingly popular in South Korea, and breakthrough wins like Kim Yu-na’s figure skating gold and Mo Tae-bum ’s two medals in speedskating are sure to foster that.

Kim is adored at home, where she’s nicknamed “Queen Yu-na” and has endorsement deals for just about every kind of product imaginable. Her performance here likely will be remembered as one of the best in figure skating history, and South Koreans proudly watched from offices, subway stations and packed restaurants.

“Thanks to the world championships and then the Olympics achievements I made, I think South Korea will be able to have young athletes develop and have bigger dreams and hopes for the future,” said Kim, who is also the reigning world champion. “And that will bring more development and success in figure skating in the future.”

Look no further than Kim’s teammate, Kwak Min-jung, who was 13th in her first major international competition as a senior.

“Her gold medal definitely will cause more interest in skating, more young skaters going into the sport. I noticed it already was happening when I was in South Korea last month,” said Michelle Kwan, who visited the country as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department. “She is going to mean so much for figure skating in her country.”

Mo could have a similar impact on speedskating. He arrived in Vancouver ranked 14th in the world and only fourth in Korea, but he was the surprise gold medalist in the 500 meters. He added a silver in the 1,000 — doubling the number of medals South Korea had won in speedskating before Vancouver.

South Korea won three more medals in speedskating.

“The Koreans form a tight unit, and everybody is feeding off each other there,” said the Netherlands’ Ireen Wust, gold medalist in the 1,500 meters. “You often see this, one does great and everyone gets into this upward spiral.”

Changing their training technique has helped, too. Years ago, promising Korean speedskaters were sent to Inzell, the open-air oval high in the Germany’s Bavarian Alps, for two months a year for extreme physical preparation. But the incessant, demanding training right up to major events — the term ‘taper’ simply didn’t exist — left the young Koreans too tired to do their best.

Then, six years ago, Kim Kwan-kyu took over as head coach. A product of the spartan system when he was a skater, he encouraged a free flow of communication between coaches and skaters and adopted the training methods used by pretty much every other country.

“It’s always fun to see someone new come along and start winning,” American Jennifer Rodriguez said. “It will be interesting to see how they do going forward over the next four years.”

And whether the South Koreans can make strides in other sports.

South Korea hasn’t come close to a medal in skiing, bobsled, luge, skeleton or any of the Nordic sports. But, aside from hockey, Park sees no reason why the country can’t produce contenders in the other sports.

Indeed, South Korea qualified its first four-man bobsled team in Vancouver, and the sled was a surprise finalist. Granted, the South Koreans finished 19th. And its fastest run was more than a second slower than the worst by the “Night Train” on its way to the gold medal. But South Koreans took it as a sign the country has the potential to succeed in other sports.

All it takes is money and time, something Park said South Korea is willing to spend. President Lee Myung-bak has already told Park he wants to discuss which areas need more resources and ways the government can help.

That could lead to more breakthrough medals in Sochi — and beyond.

“I’m glad I was able to add another medal for Korea,” Kim said. “I hope my performance will give other athletes the hope that they can win a medal at the Olympics, too.”

AP Sports Writers Barry Wilner and Raf Casert and Associated Press Writer Jean Lee contributed to this report.

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