South Korea – The Olympic Revolution of the New Millennium

I -Eva Peron, Korea and the Olympics

Before Korea became one of the most industrialized nations on the entire Asian continent, Argentina -it is about 26 times the size of SK- was one of the world’s six richest countries. Around the same time, they were getting off on the right foot in the Olympic Games.

Argentina -now a football-loving nation- was home to sixty percent of Latin America’s Olympic winners-aquatics, boxing, polo, rowing, track-field. At the 1948 London Games, they finished 13th in the medal standings. In contrast to its neighbours, Argentina had an Olympic champ to cheer in that year , when Delfo Cabrera won a gold medal. On that occasion, Korea was certainly not lucky,and finished 32nd in the medal table. Korea’s first Olympic national team was formed in the late 40s. But Koreans dare to dream the impossible.

At the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, the host country finished first in the count medal- where America was ousted from the number one spot for the first time in Continental Games history by Argentina.

But Argentina is now history. In the last Olympics, the Latin American nation only won two golds-soccer & cycling. Ironically, Argentina-where there are snow-mountains- has never won an Olympic medal in the Winter Games. Then, in April 2009, the Bolivian men’s soccer squad upset team Argentina, which was trained by soccer player-turned-coach Diego Armando Maradona, 6-1.

Different from Argentina, Japan, Australia and Canada, SK is ranked among the five best Olympic teams, along with China, America, Russia and Germany. This superb team is a paradigm on Earth.

Korea expects to send about 50 champs to the XXI Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada. The country’s athletic rulers also expect to send 250 champs to the London 2012 Olympics.

II-A Small Nation With A Big Ambition

From my perspective I think that South Korea is the most successful Olympic nation in history. Now SK became a source of inspiration for many Olympic countries around the world. Certainly, it is a role model for small countries -from Austria to Brunei Darussalam- and multiparty States -e.g. India, Taiwan, Chile, Peru, Argentina.

The Republic of Korea, also known as South Korea, is about the size of Indiana. More than 49 million people live there-it is not far off the total in Ukraine. Unlike Venezuela-it has had the benefit of high oil prices, Peru and Angola, Korea has few natural resources. This nation does not have oil, diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, gas, and uranium.

But in the last decades of the 20th century, the Korean State introduced an industrialization program and expand education. The rulers devoted more than 20 percent of its national budget to the development human-education, culture, welfare, sports. Now SK has one of the world’s strongest economies.

III-The Difficult Years

In the 1940s and 1950s, SK was a war-torn nation-World War II and Korean War. Because of this, it became one of the world’s poorest nations. After World War II ended 35 years of Japanese domination and Korea gained its independence (1948).

From 1950 to ’53 nearly three million Koreans died. On the other hand, there were, 500,000 Koreans living overseas. In the following decades Korea was governed by military warlords. In the 1990s SK became a democratic nation.

IV- A Nation of Sports Lovers

During the 1960s and 1970s, the rule introduced many sports reforms -a strong emphasis on physical education into educational system- and did many things to improve sporting life in the nation-an official policy that continued in the 1990s and 2000s. In just a few years, they also promoted the sports that were not well-known in the country.

Success came slowly at first. The number of Asian awards increased from around 27 in 1958 to more than 65 in 1978. From 1964 to ’76, the country’s champs earned 12 Olympic medals. Another example, Korea’s boxers, led by Moon Sung-Kil, won many global titles in the 1980s.

Unlike Cuba -which had a lot of coaches from the USSR, East Germany, Bulgaria, North Korea and Poland- SK did not have foreign coaches. All its Olympic awards were produced by Korean coaches.

To support Seoul’s bid to host the 1988 Olympics, the Korean chairmans hosted many international events -the 1979 Shooting World Championships, the 1982 Baseball World Cup, the 1982 Boxing Global Championships and the Korea Cup (volleyball)-and built world-class stadiums.

V- The Boycott Against South Korea

During Cold War, especially between 1950 and 1985, Korea was an isolated Olympic nation. This Asian country was considered an international pariah by the World Marxist and several anti-American states (Korea became a UN member in 1991).

The 1979 Seoul FIBA Women’s World Championships were boycotted by the Soviet Union and its allies. Three years later, Cuba’s boxers, world & Olympic champions, were not allowed to compete in the World Cup by Fidel Castro. That same year, Cuba also did not send baseball players to the World Championships in South Korea.

In 1986 North Korea boycotted the Asian Games. The Democratic People’ s Republic of Korea refused to send champs to SK. Subsequently, the XXIV Seoul Summer Olympic Games were boycotted by seven nations-Albania, Cuba, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nicaragua, North Korea, and Seychelles. However, the sports officials sent several champs to Moscow, Varna, Havana and Prague.

VI – Seoul Olympic Games- A Gold Medal for Korea

During the IOC Session in Germany in 1981, Seoul was selected as host country for the 1988 Summer Olympics, and began a new era for the country’s sports development. Seoul beat Nagoya, Japan’s city. That decision caused surprise around the world.

Thirty-eight years ago, Seoul had been destroyed by Korean War, but it had been rebuilt in record time. In the ’70s and early ’80s, Seoul was a successful host to several international tournaments.

The IOC awarded Seoul the Olympics by a margin of 15 votes. Kim Un-Yong -one of the world’s best Olympic czars- was a key figure behind South Korea’s bid to host the 1988 Summer Olympics. He was runner-up when Jacques Rogge was elected IOC chairman.

SK, an anti-Marxist state in the 20th century, did not have full diplomatic ties with the World Soviet-which had won the last three Olympics- and the People’s Republic of China-the new Olympic member. Moscow could have boycotted the Games in South Korea.

Secondly, Korea was not a multiparty-state on the Asian region. In 1980, a demonstration organized by the pro-democratic groups turned into the bloody riot known as the «Kwangju Massacre». In 1974 South Korea’s First Lady had been assassinated. Some time later, ruler Park Chung Hee was killed by the head of South Korea CIA in Seoul.

At the 24th Summer Games, SK won 12 gold medals and was one of the four best sports teams on the planet.

The Opening ceremony was spectacular. The next day, the photos were seen all over the world and from that moment the name Korea was known everywhere. Meanwhile, representatives from 159 countries attended the Olympics, including the USSR and China.

Seoul’88 was a political-blow to the Communist Movement. The Kremlin sent 514 champs to the 1988 Games. That travel had the blessing of the Soviet regime, which had boycotted the Summer Olympics in the States in 1984. Then, more than 290 champs -e.g Petra Felke, Heike Drechsler, Kristin Otto- were sent by the East German warlords- a landslide victory for the Korean chairmans. But there were other friends too: The Vietnamese rule allowed champs from Vietnam to attend the Summer Games. Certainly, sports was an important diplomatic tool for Korea.

VII- Democracy & Sports

In the country’s first multiparty presidential election, in December 1992, Kim Young Sam -a passionate human-rights advocate-, was elected, and the Asian nation returned to civilian rule. It was a watershed moment.

Now South Korea is one of the most outstanding democracies -human development and democracy- in Asia and a role model for several post-dictatorship states. From then on, Korea has one of the world’s most ambitious educational projects-many young people study more than 11 hours.

Under the new democratic rulers, SK has reinforced its sporting system. Certainly they wanted to be the centre of excellence in Asia. The Olympic Korean team surprised the world when it emerged as a «new world power» in the 21st century. On the other hand, the country staged successful 2002 World Cup and 2003 World University Games.

In the two-year period between the 2006 Winter Games and 2008 Summer Olympics, Korea won 42 awards (19 golds, 13 silvers, 10 bronzes) and finished five in the unofficial team standings, behind China, Russia, Germany and the U.S. Korea’s delegation was backed up by President Roh Moo-Hyn. In addition to the Olympic and world titles, South Korea has won several Asian gold medals. They competed with 45 countries in the Olympic-type Asian Games.

Before the 1992 Winter Olympic Games, Korea had not won any medal. Without the sporting tradition of Czechoslovakia and Sweden, Korea has more Winter Olympic medals than Spain and Japan. For this reason, the government lent its support to a bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics. In Guatemala City, Pyongchang was only beaten for the Winter Games by Sochi (Russia).

VIII- From Archery to Wrestling

Since the 2000s Korea is powerhouse in aquatics, archery, athletics, badminton, baseball, basketball, boxing, fencing, field hockey, gymnastics, handball, judo, shooting, short-track, table tennis, taekwondo, volleyball, weightlifting, wrestling,and other sports.

Archers With Olympic Honours

Korea has produced world-beating archers in recent years. From 1984 to 2008 they have won 16 gold medals. The country’s archers, inspired by Seo Hyang-Soon, won 3 of the 4 events at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Athletics-Fusion of Past, Present and Future

In the first half of the 20th century, two Koreans, Suh Yun Bok & Ham Kee Yong, won the Boston Marathon. In 2001 Bong-Ju Lee became the first non-African to win the Boston Marathon since 1991. The country’s marathon runner Hwang Young-Cho – one of Korea’s most well-known champs- claimed a gold medal at the 25th Summer Olympics in Spain. Hwang is the second sportsman from an Asian nation to win an event in this competition. Korean-born Kijung Son won the Olympic title in 1936. At the Berlin 1936 Games, he had been forced to run in the colors of the occupying Japanese forces.

Badminton-Stage of Stars

Since 1985 SK became one of the world’s best teams. Lee Yong-Dae and Lee Hyo-Jung defeated Lilyana Natsir and Nova Widianto (Indonesia) in the mixed doubles final at the China Summer Olympics in 2008. Korea placed first at the 1996 Olympic Badminton Tournament in the States-it collected two gold and silver medals.

Baseball- SK vs Cuba

Baseball has come a long away in South Korea. Its greatest year was 2008, when Korea won the gold at the Beijing Olympic Games, beating Cuba, former world champion (1984-2005). Eight years ago, they had earned a bronze medal in Sydney 2000. When the Games were opened in China, the States-2007 world champion- and Cuba were contending odds-on favorites.

The year 1982 was very happy for Korea too. That year they became the first Asian team to win a World Cup. The national team came close to winning the Global Championships in 2005.

Women’s Basketball-Asian Superstar

Surprisingly SK was runner-up at the FIBA Women’s World Cup in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s.In 1979, Korea, host country, placed second at the Global Championships. They caused an upset in the second round of the World Cup by beating the favorite America (94-82). Four years later, Korea was one of the semi-finalist in the Universal Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil-behind the USSR, America and the People’s Republic. But they did not stop there. The following year it earned silver at the Summer Olympic Games in California, USA. The team became the first women’s basket team in Asia to win an Olympic award.

Fencing-New Olympic Awards

In 2000 Young Ho Kim lived up to reputation as one of the most popular Asian fencers by winning a gold medal at the Summer Games. He is the first fencer from an Asian country to win an Olympic title.

Field Hockey- A Major Asian Talent

In the past few decades, the Korean teams have won three Olympic silver medals. During this period of time, SK became the first Asian female team to qualify for the Olympic finals. The national men’s team won silver at the 2000 Sydney Games and were fourth at the 2002 World Championships. In Australia they, spearheaded by Song Seung-Tae, defeated India (2-0), Poland (3-2), and Pakistan (1-0) before losing to the Netherlands (4-5). Amazing silver medal!

Women’s Handball- Two Olympic Golds

This country is the only successful Asian team in the world. In 1984 they became the second Korean players in history to win a team Olympic medal at the Summer Games.

In 1988 Korea made history when it won the Olympic gold medal without ever having won a World Cup title. The national team, host country, became the first non-European handball team to win a global title in history. After the winning the Asian Tournament in 1990, Korea qualified for the 1992 Olympics and won its second Olympic medal in a row.

At its fourth Olympic appearance, they claimed silver medal at the 26th Olympiad-only Denmark could beat SK. During the 14th Asian Games in 2002, Korea won both the men’s and women’s handball tournaments. This sport was completely unknown in the 1960s.

Judo- A Gold Mine for Medals

From 1981 to 2007, Korea has won a total of 21 gold medals in the World Championships. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, the national team won seven judo medals (2 golds, 3 silvers, 2 bronzes), behind only Japan (8 awards). In 1981 Park Chung Hak became the first judoka in SK to win a world trophy.

Short-Track Speed Skating-New Olympic record!

SK is the only country to have 17 Olympic gold medals. At the 2006 Turin Winter Games, the national team dominated the medal table, with a total of 10 awards (6 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze medals).


In Barceolona’92 it earned two Olympic golds, Lee Eun Chol (men’s free rifle) & Yeo Kab Soon (women’s air rifle).

Soccer- Cha Bum-Kun, the Legend

According to Park Pil-Soon, Director of the Korean Olympic Committee, soccer is the most popular sport in the country. «The most popular sport in Korea these days is football. While baseball used to take the top spot in terms of popularity and the number of spectators in the past, football gained many fans after the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which we hosted with Japan. Korea advanced to the semifinals, which made us very excited about this sport».

In the early 80s, Korea placed fourth at the FIFA Junior World Cup and became the second Asian football team to qualify for the semi-finals in a global tournament.

They have qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 1986. At the 2002 Japan-South Korea, Cha Bum-Kun became one of the best football players on the planet. Korea has won five regional tournaments (two Asian Cups and three continental gold medals). At the 1948 Olympics in the UK, South Korea placed 8th.

Swimming- The Road to Bejing

Park Tae-Hwan became the first swimmer in SK to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games when he won the men’s 400m freestyle at the 29th Summer Olympics in Beijing (China).Park’s first major international success came at the 2007 FINA World Championships, where he won a gold medal. The Korean star is the country’s pre-eminent sporting icon.

Table Tennis- A Traditional Sport

This sport is one of the oldest sports in the nation.In the early 1970s, Korea made history when it won a gold medal in the Global Tournament. Between 1987 and 1993 it also earned four world trophies.

Taekwondo-Unbeatable Records

Some famous taekwondo athletes have born in South Korea: Hwang Kyung-Seon, Kim Kyong-Hun, Lee Sun-Hee, and Moon Dae-Saung.

For many decades these athletes were unbeatable in the world. Korea has won more than 140 world titles (1975-2007). They have also dominated the Olympic Taekwondo Tournament. Since 2000 it has won nine golds.

Volleyball- A Strong National Team

This sport is one of the most popular in the country. In 1987 the national team claimed the FIVB Men’s Junior World Championship in the Persian Gulf, and was the third Korean team to win a global title since 1977.

When they arrived in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, the Korean team was not favorite.Some time later Korea defeated Brazil, which won the silver medal in 1984, 3-2 (19-17, 15-8, 6-15, 11-15, 15-12), at the Olympic Men’s Volleyball Tournament. In the late 70s, Korea was semi-finalist at the World Championships in Italy. In the qualifying rounds, they defeated Poland, Olympic champion, 3-1 (15-7, 11-15, 16-14, 15-10).

The Korean women’s national team have also won many international trophies. Between 1973 and 1977 they earned three world bronze medals.

Weightlifting- A Dark Horse

In 2006, Jang Mi-Ran, 2004 Olympic silver medalist, broke the world record in the + 75 kg category in the Middle East.

In the early 90s, Chun Byong Kwan, an unknown weightlifter, came to the Barcelona Games and won the Olympic trophy.

Wrestling-Heroes of the Games

Korea’s wrestlers have a long tradition of winning awards. In the mid-60s, Sun Jang Chang earned a gold medal at the World Cup in the States. He became one of the first Koreans to win a global title. In the last decade of the 20th century, the national team won nine universal awards.

IX – Man Bok Park- A Superb Coach

Despite attractive offers from many nations, he remained in Peru. In the mid-1970s, Man Bok Park came to Lima and became one of the world’s best coaches.

Led by Park, Peru was runner-up at the 1982 FIVB World Championships and silver medal at the 24th Summer Olympics. Korea’s Man Bok Park became the first coach to lead a Latin American female team to the Olympic finals in 1988. In 1980 Cuba, Olympic’s favorite, failed to qualify for the semi-finals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Under the advice of Man Bok Park, the Peruvian women’s volleyball squad defeated Brazil several times and won more than six South American Championships. After the Golden Age for Peru, country’s volleyball team were never as successful again at the World Championships.

X -Young Wang Sonh’s Legacy

But Man Bok Park was not alone! At the same time, the Argentine men’s volleyball squad was trained by Young Wang Sonh.This South Korean is a pioneer of Argentina’s volleyball.Young Wang Sonh led the South American team to win the bronze medal at the 1982 Global Championships.

He has become the most successful coach in the history of Argentine volleyball.

Today Argentina is producing an ever-increasing number of world-class coaches-Julio Velasco (Italy), Jon Uriarte (Argentina & Australia), Carlos Cardona (Puerto Rico), Marcelo R. Mendez (Spain), and Raúl Lozano (Poland).

XI -A Statistical Comparison

SK: 2006 Winter Olympics







Asian Games Medals


Doha 2008……58………52…………82………192……..2

Busan 2002….96………80………….84………260……..2






Bangkok ’78…..18…….13………….23………….54………2







XII -References

Almanaque Deportivo Mundial 1976, Editorial America, 1977

Almanaque Deportivo Mundial 1977, Editorial America, 1978

El Grafico. «Este Podio Vale una Lagrima y un Grito», 19 de octubre de 1982

Guevara Onofre, Alejandro. «Historia del Deporte en America Latina»

————————-«El Deporte en el Sur»

Leipziger, Danny & Thomas Vinad. «Las Bases del Exito del Asia Oriental», Revista Finanzas y Desarrollo, marzo 1994

White, Peter. T. «South Korea: What Next?», National Geographic, September 1975

Yun-han Chu, Larry Diamond, Doh Chull Shin. «Halting Progress in Korea and Taiwan», Journal of Democracy, January 2001

1988 Seoul Official Report Volume 2, IOC, 1989

2000 Sydney Official Report Volume 2, IOC, 2001

2006 Torino Olympic Winter Games Official Results,IOC, 2007

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