Stars of Asiad

(Asiad) Teenage prodigies raise hopes of sports renaissance in S. Korea

2014/10/02 15:36

By Oh Seok-min

INCHEON, Oct. 2 (Yonhap) -- South Koreans were disappointed to witness big-name athletes tumble on home soil, but took comfort in the performances of young competitors armed with talent and passion to be "the next big thing."

   The gold medal won by Park Sung-bin in the men's optimist sailing event was a source of surprise on many levels: it was South Korea's first Asiad gold in that event since 1998, and Park ended the drought at the ripe age of 13.

As the second-youngest member of the South Korean national team for the Incheon Asian Games, and the youngest gold medalist of the host nation, Park first picked up sailing upon his father's guidance three years ago. He has made impressive progress since then to reach the top at the continental competition.

With his gold medal, Park proved himself to be an expert in analyzing the wind and working it in his favor. He also turned out to be just another young man, which he is, saying after winning the medal, "Now that I finished the Asiad, I will go out and play with my friends."


Park Sung-bin, 14, poses after winning the gold medal in the men's optimist sailing event at the Incheon Asian Games on Sept. 30, 2014. (Yonhap file photo) Park Sung-bin, 14, poses after winning the gold medal in the men's optimist sailing event at the Incheon Asian Games on Sept. 30, 2014. (Yonhap file photo)

From the shooting range, 17-year-old Kim Cheong-yong made a meteoric rise.

Three years after he entered the sports world and one year after joining the national shooting team, Kim made his presence felt by winning two gold medals in the men's 10-meter pistol events at Incheon, after edging out his mentor and the world record-holder, Jin Jong-oh.

At his post-victory press conference, Kim, with a bashful smile, said, "I don't know what to say. This is actually my first time to attend this."

   Though naive-looking, Kim also showed the maturity of someone older when talking about his late father.

"My father was a taekwondo athlete, and he was strongly opposed to my decision to be a shooter," Kim said. "He seemed to be too well aware of how hard it is to live as a professional athlete. But once I set foot on the range, he told me to keep at it to the end.

"I think I can keep the promise with my deceased father," Kim added. "He would be happy seeing me competing from up above."

   The budding athlete also dedicated his achievement to Jin, who taught him "a lot, particularly on how to maintain composure throughout competitions," which he called a key to the victory.

On the tennis court, South Korea found the long-awaited athlete to take the torch from legendary player Lee Hyung-taik, who was once ranked 36th in the world, the highest ever for a South Korean tennis player.

In the men's doubles, Chung Hyeon, 18, teamed up with Lim Yong-kyu and seized the gold medal, ending the host nation's 28-year gold drought in the event.

"It is the first time ever for me to settle the first place in such a big competition," Chung said. "I hope I am not dreaming."

   The teenager, who has been playing for a dozen years, was born in a tennis-playing family, with his father serving as a coach and his older brother also a player.

"My dad took me to a court first when I was 7 to treat my amblyopia. I think it's my destiny," the bespectacled tennis player said. "My goal is to dominate the Wimbledon stage. I hope to outstrip the legendary player, Lee,"


Kim Yeong-nam (L) and Woo Ha-ram (Yonhap file photo) Kim Yeong-nam (L) and Woo Ha-ram (Yonhap file photo)

South Korea also saw a silver lining in diving, where China cemented its hegemony by sweeping all the gold medals at stake for the 10th consecutive time, dating back to the 1974 Asiad.

The teenage duo of Kim Yeong-nam and Woo Ha-ram captured the silver medal in the men's synchronized 10m platform, after having dived as a unit for less than a year. Woo later took the individual bronze in the 1m springboard event.

Though the 18-year-old Kim and the 16-year-old Woo placed a distant second behind the Chinese team of Chen Aisen and Zhang Yanquan, they brought home the first Asiad medal in this sport in 12 years.

In his middle school years, Kim bagged 11 gold medals in five diving disciplines at the country's national youth sports events. Woo made it to the national team in 2012 to become the youngest diver.

"When we have competed in the individual events, whoever was in the condition on the day won," said Woo. "The good competition with him creates synergy for us."

   In synchronized diving, at least six years of partnership are said to be necessary for a perfect performance, and divers in general reach their peak in their mid-20s, which further raises hope for South Korea, where aquatic sports were generally marginalized.

"It will take time, but it is not a tall order for the duo to capture the first-ever medal in the Olympics, probably in 2020," said coach Kwon Kyung-min. "I believe in them, and they are capable enough."