SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s sporting reputation has taken a battering of late with a dire World Cup campaign in Brazil and disappointing medal haul from the Sochi Olympics, but a shot at redemption is at hand as 10,000 athletes from around the region pour into Incheon for the 17th Asian Games.
South Korea has played second fiddle to sports powerhouse China at the last four Games and would be happy to keep that streak going in Incheon, west of Seoul, where the target is 90 gold medals and maintaining bragging rights over rivals Japan.
Park Soon-ho, chief of South Korea’s delegation to the Asian Games, acknowledged that 2014 had not been a good year for Korean sports but local athletes had the chance to turn that around in Incheon.
“I think Koreans have become a little bit distanced from sports due to poor performances at the Sochi Olympics and the Brazil World Cup,” Park told local media.
“The Korean Olympic Committee will work hard to bring the nation’s attention back to sports by getting good results at the Asian Games.”
South Korea will have 831 athletes competing at the Sept. 19 to Oct. 4 Games, the second-largest delegation behind China with 899. Japan is sending 717 athletes.
The Koreans have recorded their best gold-medal hauls when hosting the Asiad, winning 93 at the 1986 Seoul Games, and 96 at the Busan Games in 2002.
A gold-medal laden performance would be well received in South Korea, where the mood has been one of grief and despair following the Sewol ferry disaster in April.
The ferry sank on a routine journey from Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju. Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school.
Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.
Olympic archery champion Oh Jin-hyek told local media it was important for Korean athletes to do their part in helping the nation recover from the disaster.
“We as a nation have been through some difficult times, and I believe performing well (at the Asian Games) will give hope to our people,” Yonhap News agency quoted Oh as saying.
South Korea are the leading lights of archery, winning 33 of the 44 gold medals awarded at the Asian Games since the sport was officially included at the 1978 Bangkok Games, and are expected to sweep the recurve competition in Incheon.
Swimmer Park Tae-hwan will be looking to add to his tally of six Asian Games gold medals and arrives in Incheon after setting the year’s fastest 400 meters freestyle time in the world at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia last month.
Park’s expected showdown with China’s Sun Yang, who displaced him as Olympic champion in London two years ago, is one of the most eagerly anticipated duels of the Asian Games.
The new darling of South Korean sport, rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae, will also face stiff Chinese competition for gold in Incheon, while badminton world number one pair Lee Yong-dae and Yoo Yeon-seong are favourites in the men’s doubles.
Lee, one of the most popular athletes in South Korea, has almost single-handedly raised the profile of badminton in the country but his Asian Games dreams looked to have been shattered in January when the Badminton World Federation (BWF) hit him with a one-year ban for missing doping tests.
The decision was overturned in April after Korea’s badminton association admitted it had been at fault for administrative errors, leaving Lee, the 2008 Olympic mixed doubles champion, free to compete in Incheon.
“Personally I had a bad experience ... so I feel very different about the upcoming Asian Games,” said Lee, who has won two silver and two bronze medals at previous Asiads.
“This will be my third Asian Games and probably my last. I’ve always felt sad that I haven’t managed to win gold at the Asian Games.”
For many of South Korea’s male athletes, the Asian Games will offer them the chance to win an exemption from two years of military service.
South Korea is technically still at war with its northern neighbor after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty. It requires all able-bodied men to serve around two years in the military.
However, as part of its efforts to foster an elite athlete program, South Korea offers exemptions to those winning gold at the Asian Games or a medal of any color at the Olympics.
Additional reporting by Narae Kim; Editing by Patrick Johnston