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Korean athletes to watch for in Tokyo

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Korea's Olympic delegation poses before departing for Japan to join the sporting event, July 19. Yonhap
Korea's Olympic delegation poses before departing for Japan to join the sporting event, July 19. Yonhap

Team Korea members ready to make splash at Summer Games

By Lee Min-hyung

With the pandemic-delayed 2020 Olympics awaiting its belated opening on Friday, a total of 232 Korean athletes arrived in the host city of Tokyo with high hopes for the national team to outdo their last performances back in 2016.

They will vie for the top spots in 29 sports during the upcoming competition. Even if the world's first "no-spectator" Olympics will start with less fanfare than before, due to COVID-19 fears, many players in the Korean delegation are still the focus of public attention.

Rookies to watch

Teenage swimmer Hwang Sun-woo is emerging as one of the most promising Olympic rookies. This year will be the first Olympic competition for the 18-year-old swimmer.

Swimmer Hwang Sun-woo arrives at Narita International Airport in Japan for the Olympics, July 19. Yonhap
Swimmer Hwang Sun-woo arrives at Narita International Airport in Japan for the Olympics, July 19. Yonhap

Hwang is the biggest swimming sensation Korea has seen since Park Tae-hwan, who won the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Park's stunning rise to the top created a huge sensation here, as no Korean swimmer had ever succeeded in winning a medal in the Olympics until then.

Hwang set his new record in the 200-meter freestyle with a matching time of 1:44.96 during the Olympic national team squad competition in May. This time is slightly behind Park's record of 1:44.80.

But Hwang broke Park's record in the 100-meter freestyle ― with 48.04 ― in October of last year and has since drawn the attention of the public as the next rising star who may be able to replace Park.

"The focus of my training is on the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle," he said in a video-taped message released early this month. "I appreciate the support of my fans and will try my best to live up to their expectations during the upcoming matches."

Lee Kang-in, left, a midfielder for the Korean national team, smiles while training for the country's Olympic delegation at the Kashima Antlers Club House in Ibaraki, Japan, July 19. Yonhap
Lee Kang-in, left, a midfielder for the Korean national team, smiles while training for the country's Olympic delegation at the Kashima Antlers Club House in Ibaraki, Japan, July 19. Yonhap

Valencia's attacking midfielder Lee Kang-in has placed his name on the Olympic football squad. This is the first time that the young footballer has joined the under-23 Olympic national team. Korea's national football team clinched a surprising bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, but has since failed to achieve any Olympic medals in nearly a decade.

Lee, 20, is the youngest member of the squad. While running for his Spanish home club, Valencia CF, Lee proved his dribbling and precision passing skills. Football fans here and abroad hope he will continue to shine in Olympic matches as well.

He is also considered one of the rising football stars in Korea, with many critics predicting that Lee has the highest chance of reaching global stardom, similar to Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min.

"The goal for me and all the athletes who take part in the Olympics is the same: to become an Olympic champion," Lee said in a recent meeting with reporters. "All of the team members are running for the same goal."

Superstars

Korean volleyball superstar Kim Yeon-koung also departed Tuesday for Tokyo to participate in the competition.

The iconic hitter of the women's national volleyball team played a central role in leading the team into the semi-final during the 2012 Olympics, where the team failed to clinch any medals after a defeat against Japan. She has since stood at the center of the spotlight as the captain of the team, though the team also ended up losing a match in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics.

Kim Yeon-koung, left, captain of Korea's female volleyball national team, waves her hand after arriving at Narita International Airport in Japan, July 20. Yonhap
Kim Yeon-koung, left, captain of Korea's female volleyball national team, waves her hand after arriving at Narita International Airport in Japan, July 20. Yonhap

Kim is 33 and is not expected to participate in another Olympics as a national team player.

"I feel at ease (ahead of the Olympics)," she said in a video-taped interview message released by the Korea Volleyball Association. "But I will put all my energy into the upcoming matches and do my best."

Golfer Park In-bee hits a tee shot during the first round of the Jeju Samdasoo Masters, held at the southern resort island, July 30, 2020. Yonhap
Golfer Park In-bee hits a tee shot during the first round of the Jeju Samdasoo Masters, held at the southern resort island, July 30, 2020. Yonhap

Golfer Park In-bee has also headed to Tokyo to defend her gold medal. In 2016, she became the first Korean athlete to win a gold medal in the women's Olympic golf event. Park is third in the women's world golf rankings.

She has broad experience in major international matches, holding the title of a 21-time LPGA winner. Park debuted as a professional golfer in 2007 and gained global fame the following year by winning the U.S. Women's Open.

"Competing in the Olympics for the second time has been my big dream," she said in a recent message released by her management firm. "I feel pride in that I have kept my skills sharp for the past five years since the previous Olympics in Rio de Janeiro."

Strongest contenders for gold

Korea is undoubtedly the world's leading powerhouse in archery, having swept 23 gold medals in the Olympics so far. The national team has also clinched nine silver and seven bronze medals.

Korea's six-member archery team will take part in the race for the gold this time too. Kang Chae-young, a 25-year-old female archer, is in the spotlight as the front-runner for the individual and team archery events. Until recently, she maintained the No. 1 spot in the women's world archery ranking by clinching gold medals in a number of global championships in 2019.

Kang joined the Olympic team after coming in first in a contest for the Korean national squad in April. The focus of attention is on how many golds she will be able to win in the upcoming individual and team matches.

For the men's match, Kim Je-deok is set to make his Olympic debut amid expectations that he will become the youngest medalist in the nation's history of archery. Kim, 17, is viewed here as an archery prodigy after starting his career back in 2013. He is known for his bold style and is keen on detail, even if his international experience falls short of that of his overseas rivals.

Korea's athletes arrive at Narita International Airport, July 19. Yonhap
Korea's athletes arrive at Narita International Airport, July 19. Yonhap

Yang Hak-seon, the nation's first gold medalist in Olympic gymnastics, is also considered one of the strongest contenders for the gold. This Games is a new opportunity for him to regain the spotlight after he failed to take part in the 2016 Olympics, due to a hamstring injury.

Yang's return to Olympic competition made headlines here and abroad, with fans expecting him to regain his reputation as a reigning vault champion by clinching another gold.

All eyes are also on sabre fencer Oh Sang-uk, who is ranked No. 1 in the world. Oh raises hopes for Korea's fencing team to clinch two gold medals in the individual and team matches in Tokyo. After being selected as a national team fencer in 2015, Oh rapidly rose to stardom by reaching the top of the global sabre fencer ranking in 2019.

Shooter Jin Jong-oh also aims for another gold at the upcoming games after he won three consecutive golds in the 50-meter air pistol shooting event during the past three summer Olympics.

At the age of 42, the shooting legend will compete in the 10-meter pistol shooting matches this time. If he succeeds in winning at least one more medal, he will set another milestone as the Korean athlete who holds the record for the highest number of medals won in the Olympics.


Lee Min-hyung mhlee@koreatimes.co.kr


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