By Jung Min-ho
“Yes, I believe we can beat China, but it won’t be easy,” said Yoo Nam-kyu, the nation’s first table tennis gold medalist who will lead the men’s team at the London Olympics.
The blaze of glory for the Korean table tennis was short but intense. It accomplished a landmark when the current men’s national table tennis team manager Yoo won gold at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. It was the first time the sport had featured at the games. After the historic achievement, however, the level of the Chinese players has grown dramatically to a height other countries are now almost unable to reach.
“About 20 years ago, Korea had an edge over China, which is amazing regarding the fact that there were less than 2,000 table tennis players in Korea while China had about 30 million,” Yoo said in an interview with The Korea Times.
When it comes to table tennis, China has always been the unquestionable king of the sport. But the task of defeating it became almost impossible when China made a professional league to prevent a talent drain to Europe. Hundreds of talented table tennis players from China flew to European countries where they could make much more money in professional leagues there. Under such pressure, China took a bold step to keep its valuable athletic assets within the country.
“And China created a professional table tennis league about ten years ago, which has enhanced their performance drastically since then,” Yoo said.
After table tennis was introduced in Seoul, China has been ahead by winning 20 gold medals out of 24. Korea is second in the overall medal count with three golds, two silvers and 12 bronzes. Along with Sweden, which won its first and only Olympic table tennis title in Barcelona in 1992, Korea is the only country that has ever temporarily broken China’s dominance in topping the podium.
And, of course, the professional league has apparently cemented the Chinese team’s position. Four years ago at the Beijing Olympics, it swept gold across the board winning both the men’s and women’s singles and team competitions.
Joo Se-hyuck, Oh Sang-eun, and Ryu Seung-min, gold medalist at Athens 2004, are practicing day and night to achieve what appears to be almost the unreachable. Through their determined eyes, however, it seems they truly believe they can beat China at the world’s biggest competition. Also significant is that it will probably be their last Olympic challenge due to their age.
“These are the players that I spent the last part of my career with. So, we understand one another more than anyone else. Not to mention, I have so much trust in them,” Yoo said.
In the interview, Yoo sounded very hopeful, although he recognized the fact that there is a chasm between China and other countries in terms of ping pong prowess.
“What I can do for the players is only half the battle. They have to do the rest,” Yoo said. “And I think they are doing everything they can. So maybe gold is possible.”