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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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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