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Team Korea leaves Tokyo with some goals unfulfilled, but high hopes for Paris

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Korean archers Oh Jin-hyek, from left, Kim Woo-jin, Kim Je-deok, Kang Chae-young, Jang Min-hee and An San pose after arriving at Incheon International Airport, Aug. 1. Yonhap
Korean archers Oh Jin-hyek, from left, Kim Woo-jin, Kim Je-deok, Kang Chae-young, Jang Min-hee and An San pose after arriving at Incheon International Airport, Aug. 1. Yonhap

Korean athletes bring back 6 gold medals

By Kang Seung-woo

Team Korea is leaving the Tokyo Olympics at 16th place in the medal tally, falling short of its goal of making a top-10 finish at the Summer Games.

In the 17-day run of the world's biggest sporting event, which drew to a close on Sunday, Korean athletes claimed six gold, four silver and 10 bronze, which was the lowest number of gold medals earned since the 1984 Games, where it also won six gold medals along with six silver and seven bronze.

The United States clinched the top spot on the Olympic medal table for the third straight time after winning 39 gold, 41 silver and 33 bronze to edge out China with 38 gold, 32 silver and 18 bronze. Olympic host Japan came in third place with 27 gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze.

However, regardless of the number of gold medals won, the numbers themselves show how Korean athletes performed during the Games, as some of them displayed far better performances than expected, raising their prospects for the Paris Olympics in three years' time.

Entering the 2020 Games, which had to be delayed by one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Korea was looking to win at least seven gold medals via solid performances in its traditional core Olympic sports, and got off to a strong start after earning three gold medals in the first days of the Games, all of which came from archery.

During the gold streak in archery, its women's team finished first for the ninth straight time, while the Korean archery team saw outstanding performances by An San and Kim Je-deok who both tapped into their potential by winning three gold and two gold, respectively.

While archers took four gold medals in the early phase of the Olympics, Korea's fencers kept up the momentum, clinching one gold and one silver. They also added three bronze medals to the tally.

In particular, the men's sabre team, which arrived at the Game as the world's No. 1 team, lived up to its expectations by cruising through the rounds to the gold.

The last gold medal came from Shin Jea-hwan, who triumphed in the men's vault.

Jun Woong-tae smiles after winning a bronze medal in the men's modern pentathlon at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo Stadium, Saturday. He became the first Korean to win a medal in the event. Yonhap
Jun Woong-tae smiles after winning a bronze medal in the men's modern pentathlon at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo Stadium, Saturday. He became the first Korean to win a medal in the event. Yonhap

Despite not earning the top spot on the podium, several athletes brought home medals that carried extra weight and foreshadowed their bright futures at the Paris Games in 2024.

Yeo Seo-jeong bagged a bronze medal in the vault, the nation's first-ever Olympic medal in women's gymnastics, while Jun Woong-tae captured bronze in the men's modern pentathlon, becoming the first Korean to win a medal in the five-sport event.

"I was quite emotional when I was looking at the national flag being raised during the medal ceremony. For me, this bronze is as valuable as a gold medal. I will cherish this feeling for the rest of my life. I will try to have the flag in the highest place next time," Jun said.

However, Team Korea had a disappointing fall from grace in some sports that had once been a steady source of Olympic medals.

To everyone's surprise, the Korean taekwondo team, which was seeking two gold and three silver this time, took home no gold medals ― despite dispatching a record six practitioners in six divisions ― for the first time since the sport became an official event in 2000. Instead, it took home one silver medal and two bronze medals.

In particular, its "tragedy" was demonstrated by two-time Olympic medalist and former world champion Lee Dae-hoon, who was eliminated from the first round.

Many attributed the gold drought to Korean athletes' weak level of international experience after the outbreak of the coronavirus early last year, compared with European practitioners who have been taking part in real tournaments in an active manner.

Korea had also hoped that shooter Jin Jong-oh, a four-time Olympic shooting champion, would bring home the first gold for Korea on the official first day of competition, but he failed to advance to the eight-man final.

Judoka Han Mi-jin leaves the Nippon Budokan after losing a match, July 30. Joint press corps
Judoka Han Mi-jin leaves the Nippon Budokan after losing a match, July 30. Joint press corps

In addition, Korea saw its gold drought in judo continue for the second Summer Games in a row, which was another huge letdown, considering its past achievements. Korean judokas have won at least one gold in all Games since 1984 ― the exceptions being the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Team Korea also failed to defend its Olympic titles in baseball and women's golf as well, despite fielding a Korea Baseball Organization player-packed squad and four LPGA Tour golfers, including defending champion Park In-bee.

Plus, the football team that took the bronze in London failed to qualify for the semifinals.

Although many Korean athletes fell short of anticipations, there was a silver lining in that promising athletes were found for several sports in which Korea previously had been a nonentity.

Woo Sang-hyeok reached the final of the men's high jump ― the first time in 25 years for Korea's track and field team ― but just missed the podium, coming in fourth. He also set a new Korean record.

"I'm satisfied with setting a new Korean record. I'll try to win at the Paris Olympics three years from now," Woo said.

Hwang Sun-woo leaves the Tokyo Aquatics Centre after competing in the men's 100-meter final, July 29. Joint press corps
Hwang Sun-woo leaves the Tokyo Aquatics Centre after competing in the men's 100-meter final, July 29. Joint press corps

Swimmer Hwang Sun-woo showed that he could compete at the elite level by reaching the men's 100- and 200-meter freestyle finals.

"I've learned and experienced so much here," Hwang said. "By racing against some of the top swimmers, I've gotten the chance to think about how I should manage my races and how I should train to improve."

Plus, the total number of medals was not fully indicative of Team Korea's performances in Tokyo either, as more than 10 athletes just missed out on medals, finishing fourth.




Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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