Unlikely Contenders: What Explains the Koreas’ Olympic Strength?

So far in the Games, South Korea has racked up 13 gold medals, seven silvers and seven bronzes. North Korea, meanwhile, has won four gold medals (and two bronzes), more Olympic victories than Brazil, Canada, South Africa or Spain.

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EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP / Getty Images

South Korea's gymnast Yang Hak Seon (C) celebrates with coaches winning gold in the men's vault final of the artistic gymnastics event of the London Olympic Games on August 6, 2012 at the 02 North Greenwich Arena in London.

In the end, the Turk didn’t have a fighting chance. On Aug. 10, in a sport native to her homeland, South Korea’s defending Olympic champion Hwang Kyung Seon kicked her way to a 12-5 victory in the -67 kg women’s taekwondo final over Turkey’s Nur Tatar. The contest began in an exhilarating fashion after the pair traded vicious head kicks within milliseconds. But by the end of the second round, the 26-year-old Korean welterweight began to dominate, evading her opponent’s attacks as she unleashed a relentless flurry of kicks. The South Korean entered the history books as the first taekwondo fighter to medal in three Olympics, having won a bronze in Athens and the pair of golds in Beijing and London. “It feels like flying,” Hwang said. “I’ve done something special for the country and it makes me very proud.”

Taekwondo isn’t the only sport in which the Koreas—both North and South—have been flying. So far in the Games, South Korea has racked up 13 gold medals, seven silvers and seven bronzes. By gold-medal tallies, South Korea is now fifth in the rankings, after the U.S., China, Great Britain and Russia. The Asian nation struck gold in everything from fencing and archery to shooting and gymnastics. Traditionally, many of South Korea’s medals have come from archery. In women’s team archery, for instance, the South Koreans have won every title in the event’s 24-year history. “We expect a record total of gold medals this year,” said Lee Kee Heung, the head of the South Korean Olympic delegation, on Friday. “It’s all thanks to the combination of people’s support, the government’s assistance and hard work put in by athletes and their coaches.”

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North Korea, meanwhile, has won four gold medals (and two bronzes), more Olympic victories than Brazil, Canada, South Africa or Spain. North Korea sent only 56 athletes to London, yet it has medaled in sports ranging from wrestling and weightlifting to shooting and judo. Befitting a country that’s dubbed the Hermit Kingdom, North Korean athletes are shrouded in mystery. Early on in the Games, 152 cm (5’) tall Om Yun Chol emerged from obscurity to break the world record and claim a gold medal in the 56 kg (123 lb) men’s weightlifting division. He became only the fifth man in history to heft triple his body weight—and credited his feat to North Korea’s deceased dictator. “I believe the great Kim Jong Il looked over me,” he said. “I am very happy and give thanks to our Great Leader for giving me the strength to lift this weight.”

In 2000 and 2004, the two Koreas marched together at the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony. Both use a ditty titled “Patriotic Song” as their national anthem, although, naturally, the tunes are different. But even as the two Koreas walked separately in London’s Opening Ceremony, they have shared an ability to punch above their weight in the medals game.

What explains the success of Korean athletes during the Games? Let’s focus here on the South Koreans, not the North Koreans, who are compelled by the totalitarian regime to produce medals or else. One explanation credits a psychology borne of geography—a position sandwiched between China and Japan (the latter of which occupied the Koreas for part of the 20th century) has bred a people with a keen sense of self-preservation. A strong competitive spirit naturally follows.

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Then there’s official encouragement. The South Korean government has built lavish training centers for national sports teams and gives athletes financial rewards for medaling in the Olympics. Korean conglomerates also sponsor entire sports teams, such as Hyundai Motor Group’s 27-year, $26.5 million association with the winning archery squad or SK Telecom’s financial gifts to the Korean fencing team.

Athletic motivation can start early, too. This month, an op-ed in the Korea Herald noted that “Koreans are not known for resting on their laurels, and expectations are ever growing [for more Olympic success].” According to the paper, high schools and colleges “allocate up to 3 percent of admission places to student athletes regardless of test scores.” That might not seem noteworthy in the States, where top-tier universities regularly recruit athletes whose academic qualifications pale compared to the average student. But in a country where the battle for educational spots makes the Ivy League admissions process look like child’s play, it must be enticing to consider entering a top school through taekwondo kicks or well-placed arrows. Add one final incentive, at least for the gents: medaling can get South Korean men out of military service.

But the same Korea Herald article also cautioned that the “authoritarian basis” of the country’s sports system hurts the prospects of the vast majority of athletes who don’t make it to top-flight competition. “Having missed out on their education as young competitors, athletes can risk an uncertain future upon retirement,” said the op-ed.

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Back in 1988, the Olympics came to Asia for just the second time in history. (The first was the 1964 Tokyo Games.) The Seoul Olympics were Korea’s coming-out party, an emphatic statement by a society once riven by civil war that modernity had arrived. Today, in an era where South Korea is one of the planet’s most wired places and the home of electronics giants like Samsung, those days of privation feel a world away. Back then, the Olympics mattered as a way to show that South Korea had made it. Buoyed by home-field advantage, South Korea won 12 gold medals, 11 more than it had two Games before. This time, the South Korean squad has bettered that result and could strike more gold as the taekwondo competition continues. For North Korea, this Olympics has also brought the country’s best showing since a similar four gold-medal haul in 1992.

In 2018, the South Korean city of Pyeongchang will host the Winter Games. With the Olympics back on home turf, athletes won’t have to worry about a key concern of overseas competition: How to get enough kimchi, the pungent cabbage pickle that is the national Korean dish. In London, specially hired Korean cooks made sure athletes had enough kimchi to power them through the Games, according to Reuters. No word on just how much Hwang wolfed down in preparation for her gold-medal taekwondo match.

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15 comments
Lastrova
Lastrova

Fighting!  Is it any wonder they've become a developed country in just over 3 decades?  South, that is.

Danyz
Danyz

What's their secret? Kimchi! Not only does it aid digestion but it also puts fire in  the heart. Seriously, having lived in South Korea for 8 years, I can attest to the vibrancy of their national spirit. Being a very competivie nation helps, but in the final analysis ardent hearts win medals.

Disquskurr
Disquskurr

This is what I have to say about Koreans : THEY are the REAL DEAL, unlike the poor Chinese , who are forced by the Communist regime to win medals. Hope the Chinese become free one day and their non winning athletes do not get executed by their party!! Yup, its so sad :(

Koreans on the other hand, want to really win, and they try. And Unlike Americans, Koreans have humility too.

My heart felt best wishes and congratulations to all Koreans. God Bless !! :)

indiapower
indiapower

..

LetsDoCokeCat
LetsDoCokeCat

indiapower is a Chinese imposter.  You can tell by his sarcasm and obsesion with cast system.

indiapower
indiapower

Nation of curry......Continue your obloquy, you will end up winning the respect of my dog..

indiapower
indiapower

We are Indian, the greatest nation of the world. We can one day beat the chinese player in the JO even we disdan the sport and suck today in the medal classment with the pool of 1 BILLION population....BUT we are free and civilized, the proof is that we have the cast system, and the curry flavoring for our cooking, and the Indian Oil to get power in..., OMG..... Yop, it is so happy to live in india as a noble class in india):(

So sad for those who at the bottom of the cast system in india, treated as the animal...:(

Disquskurr
Disquskurr

Hahahaha, I just saw your comments !!

Relax, if you are Chinese, I have news for you : Chinese people are awesome, but they are not winning medals because they are special. They are winning because the communist regime forces people to do so.

I am American, but I am of ethnic Indian origin. And I love Chinese people, but they are just normal. In America, they have not done anything special to excel. So cool down. By shouting and propaganda you will not become superman. You are just what you are : Chinese, and not free.

I read with interest your comments on India. Appreciate them. But whatever that nation is, it is out in the open, unlike China which is all covered. 99% Chinese are not even aware of Tienanmen Square.

Chinese have made great economic strides by doing basic chores for the world. It is the world's man Friday. And all glory to it.

I can sense your back is burning, but whatever you do, China will never be taken seriously or as a FREE SOCIETY, because it is NOT FREE. Even 3rd rate fucked up nations like pakistan or bangladesh are better than China on the freedom aspect.

And CHINA can never dream of the quality of life that South Korea or Japan or even India has.

Cry your self silly brother, but a slave is a SLAVE !! I will let you burn with that bro.I will ignore you my Chinese salve brother, and pray one day you become free, and come out of your indentured salve-worker life in China, provided you survive the pollution there.

Good Luck with everything !!And hope I never hear from you !!

indiapower
indiapower

with 1billion people, india people can not win one gold medal with so poor performance in the game, what a shaaaam.... U got shut uppp.....

tijana88
tijana88

So what do you want to say, North Koreans wouldn't  like medals without totalitarian regime? So shallow, Hannah.

NagiT
NagiT

Unlikely contenders?

Disquskurr
Disquskurr

Its in a good way !! Koreans are humble and not state forced like the Soviets used to force their athletes or like Chinese who basically put their kids in appalling factories.

Before the 1990's China used to be a big zero in sports like their neighbors India : Both billion plus nations with ZERO sports interest. And then the totalitarian regime copied Soviet style ,"medal or Siberia" option. Look at the Chinese Taipei, they have a single medal.

Taiwan is free and Chinese, but sports medals are zilch.

India is free and its cultural disdain of sports makes it a ZERO in Olympics.

BUT KOREA IS FREE and it WANTS TO WIN BAD.

And that is the key !!

Koreans rock NagiT !! They have shown the world how nice guys can finish first !!

If you are Korean, you owe me coffee !! :)

indiapower
indiapower

Come on! We , the indian got our indian oil, we can get the indian power to beat the chinese player. They are just some slave , they are machine, WE ARE FREE

Disquskurr
Disquskurr

 lol, this Chinese guy is ferociously burning from his hind part !! How dare I say that Chinese people are just normal like everyone else!!

Calm down!!  Apply some cooling cream on your posterior to relieve your burning !!

sucorazon
sucorazon

 Hey wassup loser!! let me guess, you are a Indian on a cheap Chinese education visa because your parents could not afford to send you to school in India.Right?

Hey I understand you, for some smuck from the slums, China must be dazzling!! Good Luck with your China education !! And stop making a idiot of yourself comrade. And who eats curry now a days?

Shooo!! :)