Koreans grappling with self-doubt

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were the best in South Korea’s history. With a haul of 13 golds – and 31 medals overall – they finished seventh among all the competing nations

Written by Karthikkrishnaswamy | Published: July 17, 2012 3:44 am

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were the best in South Korea’s history. With a haul of 13 golds – and 31 medals overall – they finished seventh among all the competing nations. Their only real cause for disappointment,however,was the performance of their wrestlers. In their nine previous Games,South Korea had won 32 wrestling medals,10 of them gold. But they returned from Beijing with only one medal,a bronze,won by Park Eun-Chul in the 55kg Greco-Roman category. For the first time in 32 years,they went back without a wrestling gold.

Jung Ji-hyun,the last Korean to achieve that feat — when he won the 60kg Greco-Roman at the Athens Olympics in 2004 — will travel to London aware that this will represent his last chance to add to his Olympic medal tally. In Beijing,Jung had crashed out at the quarterfinal stage,losing to Kazakhstan’s Nurbakyt Tengizbayev.

Jung will be one of five members of Korea’s Greco-Roman squad,and is considered,along with Choi Gyu-jin and Kim Hyeon-woo,their likeliest medal contender. Both Choi and Kim won gold at the 2010 Asian Championships in New Delhi. Choi defeated India’s Rajender Kumar in the 55kg final,while Kim got the better of Kazakhstan’s Aibek Yensekhanov in the 66kg final. Neither,however,has taken part in the Olympics before.

At the World Championships,Choi’s best performance was a silver in the 2010 edition at Moscow,while Kim’s was a bronze in 2011 at Istanbul. Both of them lost out to Iranians – Choi to Hamid Sourian and Kim to Saeid Abdevali,who eventually won gold. Jung too,has come to grief at Iranian hands,losing to Omid Haji Noroozi in the 2010 Asian Games final.

Considering those results,it’s fair to say that the Iranian contingent will represent Korea’s biggest obstacle as they look to overcome their 2008 disappointment. But it will be a doubly difficult task for them,knowing that Iran will also head to London with the same objective. In Beijing,their wrestlers also managed only a solitary bronze.

Russian dominance

Russia have easily been wrestling’s dominant power in the Olympics. What makes them especially formidable is that all of their 15 gold medals have come in the last four editions of the Games. In comparison,the second most successful nation in that period,the United States,won only seven golds. Russia are expected to continue their dominance of the sport in London,with reigning world champions Besik Kudukhov (60kg freestyle),Bilyal Makhov (120kg freestyle) and Roman Vlasov (74kg Greco-Roman) strongly tipped for gold in their respective events.

Oriental vs Occidental

Ahead of the Olympics,the South Korean contingent has mixed feelings about an increase in athletes opting for Oriental rather than Western medicine for treating injuries and illness. It is a trend that mirrors Korean society in general,with studies showing a 32 per cent increase in the number of Oriental medical clinics in the country from 2004-11. While some athletes,including Park Jung-geu,a member of the men’s handball team,have recently stated that traditional medicine and acupuncture have provided them faster pain relief than Western techniques,others remain cautious. Two years ago,a Korean pole vaulter was banned after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances — the Korea Anti-Doping Agency blamed certain pills she had been taking.

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