Four years after reaching a record-high fifth place in the medal standings at the 2012 London Olympics, Korea’s athletes are preparing for their fifth straight top 10 finish in Rio. However, even though we are only days away, the 16-day event is under significant threat from strikes, facilities that are barely finished, and the threat of the Zika virus. This may not be the most well prepared Olympics in history, but Korea’s team are ready to stir up media hype once again and bring home another medal haul.
With Seoul exactly twelve hours ahead of Rio, catching up with Korea’s or your own country’s exploits is not going to be easy for those of us who enjoy our beauty sleep. SBS will be the main place to watch the action, though the media will have fewer athletes to focus on this time. Korea will be sending its smallest team of athletes since 1984, just 99 men and 99 women, with the aim of capturing 12 gold medals.
So who will be plastered all over your screens over the next few weeks? Kim Bo-bae and her merry men and women will be looking to continue the nation’s total dominance in what has traditionally been a gold mine for the country—archery. Last time, Koreans took three of the four gold medals available and currently sit atop the historic medal table by a distance. Although Kim is the only surviving member of the team from 2012, the new blood will face high expectations and nothing but a medal will do.
Another athlete facing high pressure will be rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae. The 22-year-old became part of the national consciousness in London when only a slip with the clubs meant she narrowly missed out on becoming the first ever Korean medalist in the discipline. She has since been improving every season to try and make amends this time around. She has come a long way in four years and is now a well-recognized face, so expect to see every single moment of her performance analyzed and scrutinized by announcers who have become gymnastic experts overnight. It is fairly reasonable to expect the cybersphere to explode in conspiracy theories if she misses out this time.
Speaking of conspiracy theories and controversy, Park Tae-hwan may yet get an opportunity to take his place on the starting blocks in the pool. The popular swimmer was banned in January 2015 and stripped of his right to represent Korea at these Olympics after being found guilty of doping. However, he has since had the Olympic ban lifted by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who accused the Korean swimming authorities of punishing Park twice for a single crime. At the time of writing, he has won his place back to resume his rivalry with Chinese sensation Sun Yang. If he does make it into the pool, expect all eyes to be resting on the young man and expecting him to restore his pride. A medal would mean redemption, but anything else will likely see him left in a deep pool without a paddle.
In team sports, football will remain the most likely to keep Koreans up late at night if the team progresses to the medal matches. Only the men have qualified and the teams are allowed to have only three players over the age of 23, meaning the big names are likely to be missing. However, the enticing possibility of a final or bronze medal match replay against Korea’s favorite rival Japan will be enough to spice up the competition.
Similarly, women’s volleyball team, who are widely expected to have a decent chance of picking up a medal, have been drawn in the same pool as their neighbours to the east. They met a matter of months ago with the Koreans coming out on top, and star player Kim Yeon-koung will be hoping for a repeat that will surely find her and her team at the most popular searches on Naver for at least 24 hours.
If you saw anything in the world news about a Korean at the London Olympics, it was probably the remarkable scenes in women’s fencing. Korean fencer Shin A-lam was left lurched on the piste for nearly an hour in a flood of tears after a highly controversial semi-final defeat. Shin will be eager to un-do the injustice she still feels she was subjected to in the individual and team epee, where she will join a host of former medalists who will be hoping to shock the fencing world again as they did four years ago, when only Italy came out with more medals from the piste. Expect the narrative to be set and replays of Shin’s sit-in protest to be burnt into your eyes in the build-up to this one; if she does take a medal, the emotion is likely to be the rawest of all.
On a side note, in the build-up over the last few months you may have seen the Korean Olympic uniforms splashed on your Facebook feeds. Possibly due to the scars still felt in the country after the MERS panic that hit the country last year, the team has left no skin uncovered with their Zika-proof uniforms. Originally the new style was met with ridicule, but as the virus has continued to spread across the country it is beginning to look like a surprisingly sensible idea, especially since a number of athletes have pulled out due to safety fears and Jamaican runner Kemar Bailey-Cole contracted the virus when training. It will be interesting to see if the longer clothing will have any negative effects on performance.
Zika is not the only issue Rio is facing, with repeated warnings that facility construction is down to the wire and with threats of protests from thousands of workers in the city. For now, it seems the games will go ahead despite all the problems, and the Korean team will hope to put all of the organizational issues and intense pressure coming from home to the back of their minds in their quest for gold. Come back as champions, and money-spinning variety show appearances await. Come back with nothing, and the public will not be too forgiving.