10-15-2007 22:08
[stars]Top 10 Sports Figures (1950-2007)

The Korea Times, the nation¡¯s first English daily, turns 57 on Nov. 1. The TOP 10 Series will feature the biggest news stories, scandals, events, figures, surprises and memorable moments in the coming weeks, in celebration of the anniversary. The series will allow our readers to revisit these moments of the past. Current and former staff members of the oldest English daily selected the Top 10s through internal meetings, online surveys and advice from outside experts. If you have differing opinions, let us know by email (thkim@koreatimes.co.kr).

By Kim Tong-hyung
Staff Reporter

You love baseball. You love the performance and competition, and the joy of the journey from a seven-month season. You love its history, its mystery, the ballpark and the fried chicken. You love it most because we can always do better next season.

You love football. You love the speed, power and execution. You love it because it¡¯s so beautifully simple and yet full of nuances and complexity. You love it because the thought of Seol Ki-hyeon¡¯s equalizer against the Italians still gives you a rush of blood.

You love boxing. You love its pure brutality, the flesh and blood, the excitement and fear, and the drama from ebb and flow. You love it simply because no other man has courage like a boxer.

You love sports because they just may be the rawest expression of our lives and emotions, incorporated in all the victories and failures, expectations and disappointments, and love and hate.

Celebrating The Korea Times¡¯ 57th birthday, we are recognizing the 10 best Korean sports figures of the contemporary era.

These modern-day gladiators have been part of our most euphoric memories in the past decades and also had their share of disappointments.


Park Chan-ho was just a 20-year-old prospect with mixed reviews before he grabbed the headlines by signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994.

Park got his first win against the Chicago Cubs during the 1996 season, when he relieved an injured Ramon Martinez in the second inning and pitched four shutout innings with seven strikeouts.

The win sent the nation into a frenzy that wasn¡¯t matched until South Korea¡¯s first win in the 2002 FIFA World Cup held at home.

Park established himself in the starting rotation his sophomore year and won 75 games for the Dodgers between 1997 and 2001, making the National League All-Star team on the last year.

However, hampered by injuries, Park declined sharply after signing a five-year, $65 million deal with the Texas Rangers at the start of the 2002 season. He never posted an ERA better than 5.46 for his new team before being traded to the San Diego Padres in 2005.

After two mediocre seasons with the Padres, Park moved to the New York Mets for this season, but was released after giving up seven runs in four innings in his only appearance.

Numbers suggest Park¡¯s career is all but over. But there¡¯s no denying that during his heyday, no sports star forced more Koreans to call in sick on game days than Park did.

Pak Se-ri has perhaps had more international success than any other Korean ever. Pak, who will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in November, has 24 LPGA Tour wins since her debut in 1998.

Pak took the tour by storm in 1998, posting four wins, including two majors . the McDonald¡¯s LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women¡¯s Open.

She built on her impressive rookie year and won 17 more tournaments through 2003, establishing herself as the top rival to golf queen Annika Sorenstam.

However, Pak¡¯s peak proved to be shorter than expected, as she managed just three wins between 2004 and 2007, while Sorenstam chalked up 21 wins during the same period.

Pak¡¯s legacy is most evident through the swarm of Korean prospects now crowding the LPGA Tour.

Football is somewhat of a religion to Koreans and Cha Bum-kun has always been the pope. The 54-year-old is hailed as a national hero for his accomplishments in German football and the South Korean national team, and is now a successful manager of the Suwon BlueWings football club.

During his 10-year career in the German Bundesliga, ¡°Cha Boom¡± played for SV Darmstadt 98, Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer 04 Leverkusen, and scored 98 goals, which was then the most ever for a foreign player in the league.

Cha appeared in 121 matches for the national team and scored 55 goals. The International Federation of Football History and Statistics named him as Asia¡¯s best player of the century.

The low point in Cha¡¯s football career came as a manager of the national squad in the 1998 World Cup, when he was sacked after just two games following a 5-0 drubbing in the hands of the Netherlands.

The Dutch were coached by Guus Hiddink, who ironically led Korea to a final four finish in the 2002 World Cup to become a national hero as big as Cha.

Giving Sohn Kee-chung a top 10 slot could be cheating on our part, as his biggest career achievement came before World War II and when Korea was still under the rule of Imperial Japan.

However, there is no denying that Sohn, who won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was truly the first modern sports hero for Koreans.

About half a century later, Sohn was given the honor of carrying the Olympic torch into the stadium at the opening ceremony of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Sohn was certainly a larger-than-life figure, and his legacy was passed on to a generation of runners who contributed to Korea¡¯s rich marathon history.

Suh Yun-bok, the winner of the 1947 Boston Marathon, Ham Kee-yong, the winner of the same event in 1950, and Hwang Young-cho, the gold medallist of the 1992 Summer Olympics marathon, were among the few runners Sohn coached.

Sohn died at the age of 90 in November of 2002 and was buried at the Daejeon National Cemetery. Afterwards, the Sohn Kee-Chung Memorial Park was established.

There was a time when boxing was the favorite pastime for Koreans. And only a few fighters captivated the hearts of the nation like Kim Ki-su.

Kim became the country¡¯s first world champion in 1966, when he defeated Italia¡¯s Nino Benventi in a WBA junior weight title match. Throughout his professional career, Kim won 45 of his 49 matches with 16 knockouts, and had two losses and draws each.

Since Kim¡¯s triumph in 1966, the country has produced some 43 World Champions, including Yu Myong-wu, Hong Su-hwan, Jang Chong-gu and more recently Chi In-jin. After retiring in 1969, Kim led a quiet life before dying at the age of 58 in 1997.

Korea¡¯s final-four run in the 2002 World Cup was a deserving way for Hong Myung-bo to finish his great football career.

Hong, dubbed by fans as ¡°Asia¡¯s Paulo Maldini,¡± is considered the best orchestrating-type defender of his generation. He was a key member for the Korean national team throughout his career and became the first Asian player to play in four consecutive World Cup tournaments.

His brightest performance at the international stage came at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when he scored a goal and setup another to pull off a dramatic last-minute draw against Spain. Hong also scored on a stunning long-range attempt and assisted on another goal in a 3-2 loss to Germany in the same tournament.

He ended his international career after the 2002 World Cup as the country¡¯s all-time leader in appearances with 135 caps.

A large number of Korea¡¯s women golfers have enjoyed international success in recent years, which their male counterparts haven¡¯t been able to match.

However, Choi Kyoung-ju is willing to do something about that as he is playing the best golf of his life at the age of 37.

After establishing himself as the country¡¯s top male golfer, Choi made the jump to the PGA Tour in 1999, but his welldocumented struggles on golf¡¯s biggest stage had critics wonder whether his career was drifting away.

However, in his eighth year in the PGA, Choi seems to have finally figured it out, winning the Memorial and the AT&T Nationals and finishing fifth on the money list with $4.58 million this season, making him a household name to sports fans.

It bears further watching whether Choi could continue his solid play next season. However, Choi¡¯s new found consistency, which allowed him to finish in the top 20 in 11 tournaments this season, suggests that there is more to come.

Hwang Young-cho winning the gold at the marathon race of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics is considered one of the country¡¯s greatest sports moments ever.

The Gangwon Province native, blessed with an optimal body type and endurance for a long-distance runner, was originally trained as a track athlete and did not convert to marathon until 1991.

Hwang proved to be a natural for marathon, as he won the very first race he participated in 1991 and quickly established himself as Korea¡¯s top runner. The Barcelona Olympic marathon was only the fourth of his career.

However, Hwang raced sparingly after Barcelona, and he retired after an injury prevented him from representing South Korea in the 1996 Olympics.

Korea has established itself as the leading nation for archery in past Olympics, and no athlete has dominated the sport like Kim Soo-nyung did.

Kim is Korea¡¯s all-time leader with four Olympic gold medals, including three as a member of the women¡¯s Olympic archery team in 1988, 1992 and 2000. She snatched the gold in the women¡¯s individuals in the 1988 Games and added a silver and bronze in the 1992 and 2000 Games, respectively.

She also won world championships in 1989 and 1991.

Yang Jung-mo, currently a professor of physical education at Dong-A University, will be forever remembered as South Korea¡¯s first Olympic gold medal winner.

Yang became a national hero when he won the men¡¯s 62-kilogram freestyle wrestling gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, beating then-world champion Zevegying Oidov of Mongolia in a dramatic final match that sent the nation into a frenzy.

Yang won a sliver at the 1978 world championships in Mexico and added a bronze at the Bangkok Asian Games later that year before retiring.