SEOUL (Reuters) - For South Korea’s female archers, Olympic gold medals are like family heirlooms — passed down from one generation of competitors to the next.
South Korea’s women have created one of the great Olympic dynasties by winning every archery gold medal since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. They are heavy favorites to extend their streak to a seventh consecutive Games in Beijing.
Athens Olympic champion Park Sung-hyun and Yoon Ok-hee, who set a 12-arrow world record of 119 points in May, are expected to vie for gold in the individual event, while in the women’s team competition South Korea appear untouchable.
The athletes are confident about their chances in Beijing but under no illusions about what the Korean people expect of them. Anything less than a sweep will be construed as failure.
“If we win two gold medals, they say it’s expected. If we don’t win two they will be disappointed,” said 23-year-old Yoon, who will get her first taste of Olympic action in Beijing. “So we have quite a bit of pressure.”
Korean women hold every world record in the outdoor recurve discipline, the standard used at the Olympics, but it is getting increasingly difficult to maintain such dominance, says South Korea most successful archer.
Kim Soo-nyung, who won four Olympic gold medals between 1988 and 2000, said the current team were still the best in the world but the gap was narrowing.
“I think we’re half a notch ahead,” Kim told Reuters. “In the days when I was playing, we used to be a full notch ahead.”
Kim, who won two golds in 1988 in Seoul aged 17, and retired after the 1992 Games before making a comeback for Sydney 2000, said the Korean team had become a victim of their own success.
“Other countries have come a long way because there are many Koreans coaching other national teams,” she added.
South Korea’s success seems to be built on exhaustive preparation coupled with state-of-the-art training techniques and a secret ingredient — archery DNA.
The National Training Centre in Taeneung has been instrumental in making South Korea a force in sport and producing athletes capable of putting the country in the top 10 of the medals table in Beijing.
One of the innovations for the upcoming Games was to remodel the archery practice grounds to recreate the Olympic venue in Beijing, complete with mock seating and spectators.
Coaches shout and stamp around in the stands to get the archers accustomed to possible distractions from the crowd, even turning on blaring music to interrupt their concentration.
It seldom does.
Kim said making it through training just to be selected for the South Korean national team was worthy of a medal itself.
“But when you get through it, it’s almost like the qualifiers are tougher than winning the gold medal at the Games,” she added.
“So when you’re playing in the real thing you play with the confidence that you’ve already been through the toughest part of it.”
Training is only part of the equation though and some of the Korean archers believe they have physiological, mental and spiritual traits that set them apart from the rest.
World record holder Yoon said Korean women were dextrous due to heightened sensitivity in their fingers, making them more adept at “feel” sports such as archery.
That theory may also go some way to explaining why South Korea continues to produce an abundance of top-class women golfers.
“Our sensitive fingertips, descended from our ancestors, and our spiritual strength and willingness to fight until the very end — they are the secrets,” Yoon said.
Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Editing by Clare Fallon