(8) Global sports propel Korean names, faces across world
By Andrew Salmon
“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell noted. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules... in other words, it is war minus the shooting... there are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.”
Well, perhaps. If the internationalization of sports in the early-mid 20th century coincided with the most terrible wars in human history, they also provided an outlet for the average man (and more latterly, woman) to exercise his body in practice, and his passion in support of his favored star or team.
As organized sport leapt beyond provincial bounds to become international phenomena, global competitions and leagues evolved. Money began to appear from sponsors and advertisers. As a tentative industry came into being, a communications revolution enabled by cinema newsreels, mass radio ownership and later television ownership flashed the faces, names and achievements of players and teams across continents. Athletes became global stars.
One might paraphrase another great thinker, Karl Marx: If religion was the 19th century opium of the masses, quieting their passion, global sport is the 21st century viagra of the masses, animating lives with frenzied vitality.
From Berlin Olympics to Bundesliga
Given that Japanese colonization wiped Korea off the face of the world map from 1910-1945, there were few possibilities for Koreans to become global names or faces. It was sport that brought the first Korean to the (brief) attention of an international mass audience, when an estimated million spectators lined the route of the last event of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.
The marathon was won in a time of 2 hours, 26 minutes and 42 seconds ― a world record, the first time the race had been finished in less than two and a half hours. The winner was an Asian, “Son Ki-tei.” But Son was born in the northwest Korean town of Sinuiju; his birth name Sohn Kee-chung. On the winner’s podium as the Japanese anthem was played, Sohn bowed his head ― not in respect, he would later declare, but in outrage.
In 1936, Europe was heading toward war ― one that would eventually result in the lifting of the Japanese yoke from Sohn’s homeland. But the aftermath of World War II bought even greater disaster in terms of lives lost, than the 35-year colonial period that preceded it. The Korean War killed millions while leaving the peninsula divided. The years following were grim as South Korea, facing a still dangerous North Korea, struggled to build a modern economy from the ashes. In this era of forceful industrialization, military coups and authoritarian leadership, few joyful Korean faces were seen around the world. One, however, belonged to a former sumo wrestler named Rikidozan.
“Riki” had been born Korean and named Kim Sin-nak, but preferred to keep that quiet. For good reason: He had left sumo for “professional” wrestling, an arena in which his specialty was playing the “virtuous” Japanese beating up “villainous” Americans. In the 1950s, Riki would become as famous among Japanese as Hulk Hogan would be among Americans in the 1980s. His success enabled him to build a nightclub empire, which brought him into contact with murky social elements. In 1963, he was fatally stabbed by a yakuza gangster with a poisoned sword.
But professional wrestling, then as now, was less sport and more entertainment. Germany had been the venue for Sohn’s finest moment, and Germany would provide the venue for the next Korean star to blaze across the international sporting scene. This man’s fame would be far from fleeting.
In 1978, a Korean footballer was picked up to play in the German Bundesliga. His name was Cha Bum-kun, and he would become the first Korean-born athlete to play at the highest level of “The Beautiful Game.” After a short spell with SV Darmstadt, Cha was signed by Eintracht Frankfurt. That made him a member of a UEFA Cup-winning team. He later transferred to Bayer Leverkursen, where he again lifted that trophy. Known to Germans as “Cha Boom” for his thunderous shots, Cha retired in 1989 with 98 goals to his name, making him the (then) highest non-German scorer in the league and a striker whose name was known to football fans across Europe.
From ‘88 Olympics to ‘97 financial crisis
Ten years after Cha made his German debut, Sohn ran again ― under Korea skies. Some 80,000 spectators rose to cheer as he jogged into Jamsil’s Olympic Stadium, weeping with emotion, Olympic torch in hand. Awed sports commentators told the old hero’s story for those too young to remember “Son Ki-tei” and the Berlin Games.
The 1988 Olympic Games marked South Korea’s arrival as a nation to be reckoned with. Already an export dynamo, she had won democracy after a long and bitter struggle. Externally, Korea’s turn to host the games had come at an iconic moment in 20th century history: Communism was collapsing, and athletes from east and west united under the Olympic banner:
Unlike the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and for the first time since 1972 there was no organized boycott. Though a sporting event, the Olympics enabled Korea to expand diplomatic relationships while impressing potential trade partners and investors.
On the field, Korea’s national sport, taekwondo, was employed as a demonstration sport: it would later win full Olympic status. (The international pioneers of taekwondo will be featured later in this series.) Korean athletes took home 12 golds and the nation came in fourth overall but it is fair to say that no international star emerged. That would have to wait until 1994.
An American missionary introduced baseball to Korea in the 19th century, and it is unsurprising, given America’s influence on South Korea from 1945 onward, that baseball became the nation’s top spectator sport. It was from the ranks of local ball players that Korea’s first major international sporting star after Cha would appear. Appropriately, it would be in Los Angeles ― home to a massive Koreatown ― that his star would shine brightest.
Park Chan-ho was hired by the LA Dodgers in 1994. Though an indifferent batsman, he was a brilliant pitcher and a standout with the Dodgers for seven seasons. At home, he was hugely admired, with restaurants and coffee shops naming themselves after him; no visitor to his hometown of Gongju could be in the city long before being made aware of its most famous son. Having peaked at the Dodgers, Park transferring to the Texas Rangers in 2001 ― a bad move, for the Rangers favored batsmen. He subsequently moved from team to team, and is currently signed to Japanese side Orix Buffaloes. Though his career is clearly in the doldrums ― Park is 38 — he was the first Korean superstar of mainstream American sports.
Meanwhile, back home, disaster had struck. The breakneck economic rise of South Korea hit the ceiling at the end of 1997, leading to a (then) world-record $58 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These were arguably the darkest days since the advent of industrialization in the 1960s, but at the height of the crisis, a local sporting star would raise the national spirit.
In 1998, diminutive golfer Pak Se-ri won the McDonalds’ LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open ― firsts for Koreans. Locals were particularly impressed with how Pak waded into a water obstacle and clipped the ball out, seizing victory from defeat. And she would be the first of many. More Parks, Kims and Lees followed, making Koreans the most noticeable ethnic group in the LPGA (and generating some unfavorable comments in the U.S. golf press about the win-at-all-costs mentality of Korean parents).
Red Devils and Ice Queen
If the ’88 Olympics had been Korea’s coming-out party, the 2002 World Cup was her walk down the aisle. Millennial Korea had recovered from the 1997 crisis. She was high-tech, sophisticated, self-confident and ― a big change from the militaristic days of 1988 ― home to an exuberant youth culture. To make things sweeter, South Korea’s good natured and emotive crowds won many more international friends than co-host Japan’s low-key supporters. Team Korea fully leveraged the home team advantage, coming in fourth place overall, while Japan failed to break out of the tournament’s first round.
The national team’s impressive achievement ― its best-ever in international competition ― sparked a short-lived interest in foreign management practices, as a Dutchman, Guus Hiddink, had coached the team. It also placed national players firmly in the crosshairs of global talent scouts.
While pretty-boy striker Ahn Jung-hwan had mesmerized the Korean crowds, he was not destined for international glory compared to other members of the squad. Cha Bum-kun’s son, Cha Du-ri, followed his father into the Bundesliga, while Seol Ki-hyeon played for Dutch, German and British teams. But a young midfielder, Park Ji-sung, would score the biggest success.
One great image of 2002 was Park jumping into Hiddink’s arms after scoring. Post-World Cup, he followed his mentor to Europe, playing for PSV Eindhoven, which Hiddink was managing. After a two-year stint there, however, the former Red Devil — the nickname for the Korean national squad ― became an English Red Devil ― the nickname for arguably the most famous team in football, Manchester United.
Since his 2005 debut at Man U, Park has been, while not a prolific goal scorer, one of the most consistent play-makers in the star-studded team, famed for his stamina and work ethic. Park shows no interest in the off-pitch shenanigans that plague so many Premier League players, which might explain something about both his upbringing ― Korean sports stars, unlike some of their counterparts in business and entertainment, tend to avoid the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle ― and his personality ― he is on record as saying he does not like to be recognized by media, but does like to be recognized by fans for his play. A player’s player, Park was dubbed by The Observer as, “The best Asian to play in English football.” Due to the massive worldwide popularity of football he, is at time of writing, probably the most famous Korean sports star alive.
But at home, his popularity may already have been eclipsed. Kim Yu-na ― equipped with a picture-perfect smile, a to-die-for figure and a girl-next-door folkiness ― won the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in 2006. More wins would follow, most notably gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics, where she won with the highest scores in the history of the International Skating Union and became a bona fide international superstar.
However, there would be controversy after she fired the Canadian coach who had guided her to her most famous victories, Brian Orser, in 2010. With Kim’s team declining to comment, Orser was quoted widely as saying he had no idea why he had been shown the door ― prompting an angry tweet from Kim, whose handlers appeared not to realize that when an international star changes coaches, it is, indeed, international news.
But if her international PR ― Kim is now managed by an agency she had set up with her mother ― lacked polish, unlike the media-shy Park, Kim seems well positioned for post-career celebrity success. She currently hosts a studded prime-time TV ice-skating talent show and is a virtual goddess, whose generous charitable donations and business activities are widely watched and commented on. The icing on the cake of her popularity came after she was part of the committee which won the Korean town of PyeongChang the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in its third bid.
Some might discern a divine hand at work. Sohn became the first Korean to win Olympic gold ― then the nation won 1988 Summer Olympics hosting rights. Cha became an international football sensation ― and the nation took the 2002 World Cup. Kim became a winter sports superstar ― and Korea won the right to run the Winter Olympics. This is a hat-trick: By 2018, Korea will have hosted the world’s three major sports events.
And the winner is...?
From which field will the next local global star athlete emerge? Already, Korea dominates cyber sports, though their early potential as spectator sports has not been realized. The huge local interest in mixed martial arts mean that a local fighter may realize the early promise of the huge (and hugely hyped) Choi Hong-man, who never fulfilled his potential.
But regardless of which field it may be, the ever-increasing disposable income of Koreans, the nation’s ever-improving sports infrastructure and Koreans unquenchable thirst for approbation and success all indicate that this country will continue to spawn international sports stars.
Still, this is a historical series. Who is the most iconic, most influential Korean sports star?
It is a tricky call. Despite the incredible 20th century expansion of sports across the globe, they remain penned by geographical and ethnic or cultural fault lines. There is ― and may never be ― a single, over-arching global sport. In very general terms: The world’s top spectator sport, football, remains, at its highest level, the exclusive province of European and South American teams. Cricket and rugby are largely restricted to the Commonwealth. North American sports have minimal reach beyond North America. The highlight of the Olympics, the 100-meter sprint, is over in seconds and, being an individual event, does not draw the crowds that team sports attract.
For this reason, it is not possible to pinpoint a single Korean star as our “icon” or “influencer.”But for a divided nation whose most iconic member is a pot-bellied dictator with a bouffant, sport has provided a vehicle for more positive Korean images to flash across global media. Their celebrity status within their multimillion-person fan bases makes them iconic, and in terms of promoting a more positive image of Korea, they are influential. They come higher up our list than the stars of hallyu, for these sports stars above are known across North American and Western Europe ― critical markets where the name-recognition of hallyu stars remains low.
So do we include these stars as a group ― or could we call them a team? Teams are symbolic of sports, and the fact that these Korean stars have done so well in international pastimes, playing in multinational teams, leagues and tournaments, suggests that Orwell’s association of sports with violent and divisive tribal encounters is off the mark.
Andrew Salmon is a reporter and the author of three works on modern Korean history: “U.S. Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866 ― the Present,” “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951,” and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.”