The Korea Herald


As Asiad nears 100-day countdown, S. Korea eyes to bounce back in medal race

By Yonhap

Published : June 13, 2023 - 10:03

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South Korean recurve archer Kim Je-deok on July 22, 2022 (World Archery) South Korean recurve archer Kim Je-deok on July 22, 2022 (World Archery)

The 19th edition of the Asian Games, scheduled to take place in Hangzhou, China, last fall, had to be pushed back by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the host country.

With that, South Korea's chance at redemption had to be on hold for another 12 months.

The countdown for the Sept. 23--Oct. 8 competition will reach 100 days Thursday, and South Korea is set to send its largest-ever Asian Games delegation with 1,180 athletes and officials competing in all 40 sports.

Despite the stated goal of celebrating sports on the world's largest continent, the Asian Games have mostly been dominated by three sporting giants in the region, China, South Korea and Japan, for decades. These three countries have finished in the top three in the medal table, in one order or another, in every competition since 1978.

South Korea had finished in second place behind China at every Asiad from 1998 to 2014, but that streak ended in 2018, as South Korea ranked third behind Japan. South Korea won 49 gold medals, 26 fewer than Japan and its lowest total since 1982.

South Korea's total represented a drop of 30 gold medals from 2014, while Japan won 28 more gold medals in 2018 than it had four years earlier.

China will likely finish first again, especially since it's the host country. South Korea and Japan have long separated themselves from the pack and the two rivals should once again vie for second place.

The one-year postponement of this competition means it's that much closer to the next Summer Olympics, set to start in Paris in July 2024. And several sports will use the Asian Games as regional qualifiers for the Olympics, which should add an extra layer of intrigue to the competition.

South Korea will likely face an uphill climb to catch Japan, though. For one, Japan has always outpaced South Korea in athletics and swimming, often the two events with the most medals up for grabs. South Korea has also regressed in others sports, such as judo, wrestling and boxing, and has not been able to make up for those losses elsewhere.

In athletics and swimming, at least, South Korea will be carried by world-class athletes eyeing not just an Asian Games gold medal but an Olympic title next year.

High jumper Woo Sang-hyeok enjoyed his first moment in the spotlight at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, finishing fourth for the best Olympic showing by a South Korean track and field athlete ever. His biggest prize to date has been the silver medal at last year's world outdoor championships, behind the fellow Asian star and three-time world champion, Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar.

With Barshim having committed to Hangzhou to chase his third Asian Games gold, Woo will get to renew his rivalry with the Qatari veteran. Woo will try to become the first South Korean high jump champion at an Asiad since 2002.

In the pool, freestyler Hwang Sun-woo also flashed his potential in Tokyo and emerged as the 2022 world silver medalist in the 200 meters. Standing between Hwang and the top of the podium will be the Chinese teenager Pan Zhanle, who broke Hwang's Asian record in the 100m freestyle and set a new personal best in the 200m freestyle last month.

Hwang's personal best in the 200m is 1:44.47, 0.18 second faster than Pan.

Other individual athletes to keep an eye on include badminton star An Se-young, world No. 2 in the women's singles with five international titles this year. In archery, triple Olympic gold medalist An San and double Olympic champion Kim Je-deok will test their mettle against continental competition.

The men's football team will hope they will have the services of RCD Mallorca midfielder Lee Kang-in as they chase a third consecutive gold medal. The baseball team, featuring the reigning Korea Baseball Organization MVP, Lee Jung-hoo, will try to win a fourth consecutive Asiad title.

Away from the field of play, North Korea's likely participation will bring some geopolitical implications to the competition.

The state of inter-Korean relations is vastly different now than at the previous Asian Games from 2018 in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia.

Only months removed from marching in together at the opening ceremony and forming a joint women's hockey team at the Winter Olympics in the South Korean alpine town of PyeongChang, the two Koreas once again walked into the opening ceremony under the same flag at the opening ceremony. They assembled joint teams in three sports -- women's basketball, canoeing and rowing -- picking up a gold and two bronze medals in canoeing's dragon boat and winning silver in women's hoops.

The two Koreas will almost certainly not be joining forces this time, with little hope of a dramatic, last-minute turnaround. Against this backdrop, the plot will thicken when athletes or teams from the Koreas go toe-to-toe with medals at stake. (Yonhap)