If you haven’t noticed already – it’s hard to ignore the thousands of people in the street cheering on the National Football Team during World Cup season – Koreans are hardcore sports fans. As the nation that has brought you “stick balloons” (aka the notorious “Thundersticks”) Korea also has mastered the art of organized mass cheering. So who are Koreans cheering on these days? Here’s a look at the country’s major sports stars:
“THE BIG 3”
The cream of the crop among the active sports stars, these high profile stars whom EVERYONE knows, they shine brightly in their sports, participate in various social engagements and endorse wide range of products in their free time. In the past couple of years, it has been the following who have dominated the attention:
KIM YUNA (김연아)
Figure-skating world champion and Olympic gold medalist Kim Yuna (21) has been breaking records on the ice for years. Through painstaking effort and perseverance, she brought the unpopular sport to the country’s attention and made it a must-see event. Pretty, bright, articulate, smart, personable, and with amazing singing abilities, she has endeared herself to the whole country and is called “the nation’s younger sister”.
Her latest participation in Pyeongchang’s successful bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics further enhanced her popularity, and it doesn’t seem it’ll die down anytime yet.
PARK JISUNG (박지성)
There is a moment in Korea’s football history that would forever be stuff of legend. In the 2002 World Cup, which Korea co-hosted with Japan, Park Jisung (30) shot a deciding goal which advanced Korea to the next tournament round. While the whole nation was going crazy with jubilation, Park ran into the arms of the National Team’s head manager Guus Hiddink, a scene that was played over and over in the media the next day, and years and years to come.
Being an essential player on the National Team and heading it as captain until last year, Park has now retired from international football to focus on his career in the English Premier League, at Manchester United. He is still revered with deep fervor, which has many Koreans rooting for his English team as well.
PARK TAE HWAN (박태환)
Another gifted athlete who brought an unpopular sport to the nation’s attention, freestyle swimmer Park Taehwan (22) is an Olympic gold medalist at the 2008 games; which made him the first Korean to win a medal in swimming. He charmed the country not only with his accomplishments but also with his boyish good looks, which has made him a favorite with corporate sponsors (and the girls).
It is not the Big 3 that are the only stars.
PARK CHANHO (박찬호)
As a 21 year old university student in 1994, Park Chanho (38) was signed to the Los Angeles Dodgers, becoming the first Korean to play in Major League Baseball. Throwing with the average speed of 140km/h ~ 150km/h, he was most known for his fastball which gave him the reputation of being a “power pitcher”. He played for a series of MLB clubs while representing Korea in international games; he recently joined the Orix Buffaloes in Japan.
Always popular, he has paved the way for other Korean players to head into the international sports scene, not only in baseball, and is a favorite guest for TV programs due to his easy and friendly demeanor.
LEE SEUNG YEOP (이승엽)
Playing for the Samsung Lions in the Korean Baseball Organization from 1995 to 2003, Lee Seung Yeop (35) was the bona fide homerun king, earning him the nickname of “Lion King”. At the age of 26, he was the youngest player in the world to hit 300 homeruns, and he also set the Asian record for hitting the most homeruns in a season.
He was an essential player for the Korean National Baseball team in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Olympic Games, where Korea won the gold. Lee has played in Japan since 2004 and has been with the Orix Buffaloes since 2006. It was been reported that Lee may return to Korea in 2012.
CHOO SHIN SOO (추신수)
Playing for the Cleveland Indians in the MLB, Choo Shin Soo (29) is an excellent all-around player: homeruns, hits, RBIs, stolen bases, exceptional batting average – he owns them all. In 2009, he hit 20 homeruns and stole 20 bases, becoming the first Asian in the MLB to do so.
As the only Korean currently playing in the MLB, he has a lot of the country’s expectations lying on his shoulders, not only to be a fabulous baseball player but also to be a good representative of Korea. He met some skirmishes on the way dealing with all the pressure but has “grown up” in the process, earning him respect along with admiration.
LEE DAE-HO (이대호)
While his friend Choo is slugging away in the MLB, Lee Daeho (29) is making a big mark at home playing for the Lotte Giants . He is revered with almost godlike adoration in Busan, which is home to the Lotte Giants and whose fans are notorious for being hardcore and fiercely loyal.
Lee played a big part in winning the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics and continued to excel thereafter. In 2010, he hit homeruns in 9 consecutive games – a world record. 2010 was also the year he dominated Korean baseball; he received MVP of the year, beating out his competition by a long mile. He is considered to be the next to achieve superstardom in Korean baseball.
LEE CHUNG YONG (이청용) & KI SUNG YUENG (기성용)
“Blue Dragon” Lee Chung Yong (23) made his mark in the 2010 World Cup and was named one of the 10 rising stars by Sports Illustrated. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/ Being one of the most consistent players on the field, Lee has received many awards from his club, the Bolton Wanderers, in his first season, and continues to shine on the field. He is expected to take over as Korea’s main star football player after Park Jisung.
Ki Sung Yueng (22) plays for Celtic in the Scottish Premier League alongside Cha Duri. Considered top class among the younger generation of Korean football stars, Ki is also known for his fluent English (which isn’t that common among Korean footballers). His “pretty boy” looks have earned him many female fans, which make him a great poster boy for various marketing campaigns.
PARK JU YOUNG (박주영) & CHA DURI (차두리)
Park Ju Young (26) took over as captain on the National Football Team after Park Jisung. Already a top-scoring player in his teens, he received many accolades as a star striker and was considered the natural choice for captain. Even while overcoming many injuries, he has always been popular. He currently plays for Arsenal in the English Premier League.
Cha Duri (31) is nicknamed the “Chaminator”, a term referring to his style of slicing his way through defenders as he heads to the goal. Being the son of Korea’s football legend and hero Cha Bum Kun, he has much to live up to, but instead of that expectation being a burden, he has endeared himself to the public with his strong determination and always smiling, cheery disposition. Cha is a player for Celtic in the Scottish Premier League.
CHOI KYUNG JU (최경주)
Although it may have been fellow Korean golfer Yang Yong Eun (양용은) who received much attention from the press when he beat Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship, it’s actually Choi Kyung Ju (41) who is the more established golfer. Choi was the first Korean to join the PGA tour and has many wins to his name.
Unlike the Korean ladies (see next segment), there are few men on the international golf scene, mostly due to the fact that at the height of their sport careers, men have to mandatorily serve in the military, and unlike team sports or Olympic sports the athletes do not have chances to get exempted. So for Choi to have a made a name for himself is quite a feat. He also paved the way for other Korean golfers to head out internationally.
LADY POWER GOLFERS
It all started with Seri Pak (34) in 1998, when she took the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open. After creating a sensation on the international golf scene, she was quickly followed by a myriad of Korean lady golfers who have been continuously winning. In fact, there have been so many players it is getting hard to keep track. Clockwise from top left: Seri Pak (박세리), Shin Jiyai (신지애), Choi Na Yeon (최나연), Ryu So Yeon (유소연), and Grace Park (박지은).
NATIONAL ARCHERY TEAM
Koreans have always excelled in bow and arrow. Why, no one really seems to know. All we do know is that there are records of bow and arrow being used in Korea’s ancient history, and also that the Korean National Archery Team has been dominating target archery for quite a long time, garnering the most medals in the Olympics.
The competition to become a member of the Korean National Team is extremely fierce, it is said it is even more difficult than getting a gold medal at the Olympics itself. Whomever is on the team for whatever competition, Korea is always eager to cheer the team on.
NATIONAL SHORT TRACK SPEED SKATING TEAM
As with archery, short track speed skating is another sport which the nation considers as its own, and as with archery again, a sport in which becoming a member of the national team is as difficult as a camel passing through an eye of a needle. For the men’s category, Korean athletes hold most of the World Records and have won many Olympic medals. So many athletes share that honor, and Koreans find themselves cheering for as many new faces as well as the familiar in each event.
JANG MIRAN (장미란)
Weightlifting isn’t usually something Korean women do. However, something made Jang Miran (28) start lifting, and when she did, she did it properly, setting new world records at the 2008 Olympics. Although Korean women have been weightlifting since the ‘80s, not many Koreans have been aware of this until she came upon the scene. She has inspired many young women to start the sport, so there will probably be a new wave of notable Korean weightlifters in the short future.
And of course, we can’t pass by without mentioning the true heroes and legends in Korean sports: the historic marathoner Sohn Kee Chung (손기정, who I mentioned in this post about marathons); football legend, sports commentator, dad of Cha Duri, Cha Bum Kun (차범근); “Emperor of the Sand”, ssireum (씨름, traditional Korean wrestling) champion and now professor Lee Manki (이만기); and the Honorary Korean, the head manager of the 2002 World Cup Team, Guus Hiddink.
* All images’ sources are indicated in the photos. If not indicated, most are from Newsis.