Ex-sprinter urges public’s interest in athletics
By Do Je-hae
DAEGU ― One of the proudest moments for an athlete is to participate in a major sporting event like the World Athletics Championships hosted in his or her homeland.
Former star sprinter Chang Jae-keun was in a festive mood as he seated himself for an interview with The Korea Times at Daegu Stadium. A premier Asian sprinter in the 1980s, he has been a coach and mentor to sprinters here for more than 20 years.
There are numerous factors required to build an athletics powerhouse, and one of them is the public's interest and participation in the sport.
"Many advanced athletes hail from countries where jogging is a natural part of their exercise routine," Chang said. “But here in Korea, I feel that the sport of athletics is still very much isolated from the general public.”
A gold medalist at the 1986 Asian Games, the former track technical director for the Korea Association of Athletic Federations (KAAF) participates as an official IAAF judge at these championships.
“We can start by creating more marathon clubs and sporting events on neighborhood basis. These clubs and events can ultimately contribute to creating a culture for promoting athletics,” Chang said.
Athletics has never been the object of a collective fervor like soccer and baseball here, but the 49-year-old said there is a kind of ecstasy that only athletics can generate.
“Watching a 100-meter or 200-meter race is an extremely invigorating experience and the feeling is even more vivid when witnessed live in the stadium,” Chang said as he urged citizens to come to the southeastern city of Daegu. "When will we ever have a chance like this again, to host such a momentous occasion for the sport of athletics in our country?”
He had a word of encouragement for Korean athletes aspiring to build a future legacy of athletic excellence.
“I hope that they will do their utmost during the competition, so that they will feel that they did the best they could as they leave the stadium,” Chang said.
In 1982, Chang won an Asian Games gold medal in the 200 meters and a silver medal in the 100 meters, leaving his mark as the most successful sprinter in Korean history. His gold-medal winning time for the 200 meters at the 1986 Asian Games of 20.41 seconds remains unbroken by any Korean for 26 years.
Chang’s global triumphs in the 1980s gave Koreans confidence that excellence could be achieved in athletic events other than the marathon.
Korea’s intermittent global triumphs in athletics has sadly been on hold since the retirement of marathoner Lee Bong-ju, a national hero who in 1996 captured the silver medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games and won the preeminent Boston Marathon in 2001.
Before Lee came Hwang Young-jo, the 1992 marathon champion at the Barcelona Olympic Games who had been coached and mentored by marathon runner Sohn Kee-chung, the 1936 winner at the Berlin Olympic Games and a symbol of hope for a nation in agony over Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945).
The nation’s heyday of marathon came in 1950 when Koreans took the top three standings at the Boston Marathon. Ham Kee-yong, Song Gil-yun and Choe Yu-chil were all coached by Sohn.
So how was it is possible for them to achieve phenomenal success under such difficult times?
“Back then, if you wanted to excel in the marathon, all you needed to do was run. It wasn’t like nowadays where training depends so much on technical and financial factors,” Chang said. “Also, I think the nation’s suffering sort of served as an impetus for them to go out into the world and do something to make a name for their motherland.”
Even though Korea remains an athletics underdog, there will be no problem in leading the championships to a resounding success, Chang said.
Daegu boasts a tradition of holding major global sporting events, such as the 2002 World Cup and the 2003 Summer Universiade.
But he showed some reservations about the efficiency of the organizing committee.
“It would be wiser and more efficient to make use of people who know and understand sports to lead these kinds of organizations,” Chang said.
Korea has a practice of employing high-level incumbent or former government officials to lead organizing committees for such events, regardless of their background and level of expertise.
“Also, we need a long-term policy of nurturing young talent for athletics. It takes more than 10 years to produce stars like Kim Yu-na, the 2010 gold medalist in ladies’ figure skating,” Chang added.