HA TAE KWUN: “Give it all you’ve got!”

Just before the Korean men’s doubles enter the Spanish arena for the World Championships, Badzine met one of Korea’s former great players, Ha Tae Kwon, to enquire about how his […]

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Just before the Korean men’s doubles enter the Spanish arena for the , Badzine met one of Korea’s former great players, Ha Tae Kwon, to enquire about how his compatriots might feel when entering such a competition. Ha also shares with us some of his memories from these competitions, especially the one he played in Sevilla in 2001.

Story and photo by Don Hearn, Badzine Correspondent

Ha Tae-kwun is one of Korea’s best-known badminton stars. Ha passed that final threshold to become a household name in Korea when he won the gold medal in men’s doubles at the 2004 Athens Olympics. However, Ha was already known throughout the badminton world as the 1999 World Champion and 3-time champion. In fact, in just under 10 years, Ha accumulated no less than 30 international tournament wins.

Ha retired from international competition last year, shortly after his partner, Kim Dong-moon, and their opponents in the Athens gold medal match, Lee Dong-soo and Yoo Yong-sung. Ha stayed with the national team into 2005, reaching the All England semi-finals with his new partner, Yim Bang-eun, and finally called it quits after the Sudirman Cup. Ha has continued to play domestically, partnering both Kim and Yim, and helping to lead Samsung Electromechanics to 3 team titles in nation-wide tournaments in the last year.

The last time the IBF World Championships were held in Spain, Ha Tae-kwun and Kim Dong-moon entered the tournament as the defending champions – but ranked only 21st in the world – and took home the silver medal. Korea won 3 medals in Sevilla that year, a total that the nation has not matched since.

This year Ha’s younger teammates have again travelled to Spain to take on the world. Among them are two of his Samsung teammates including one, Jung Jae-sung, who has travelled a very similar path to the top of world badminton, attending the same high school and university as Ha did before joining the same professional team.

We caught up with Ha Tae-kwun at the Samsung Electromechanics gymnasium and got his views on the world championships, the realities and pressures of being on the Korean team, and the role of his generation in the development of the sport.

Badzine International (BZI): First of all, do you have any special memories of the 2001 World Championships in Seville?

Ha Tae-kwun: Well, the tournament was held in May and I wasn’t in great shape. I’d been injured and wasn’t able to train particularly hard so we went to the tournament not expecting to do very well. We certainly weren’t counting on winning or even reaching the finals. So, finishing as well as we did was quite unexpected.

BZI: Although you didn’t have a high ranking when you entered that tournament, did you feel a lot of pressure to perform because of the fact that you were the defending champions?

Ha: Not when the tournament started, but once we reached the finals, there was a lot of pressure to do well.

BZI: At the World Championships this year, Jung Jae-sung and Lee Yong-dae, though not defending champions, are going into the tournament ranked #2 in the world. Would the pressure they’re feeling now be at all similar?

Ha: Of course, since they’re elite athletes, they’re always under pressure. However, they’re young and, even though they are still short on experience, if they have the desire, I think they can do well this year.

BZI: Reaching a lot further back, after the 1992 Olympics, Park Joo Bong and Kim Moon-soo retired at the zenith of a very successful career. At that time, you were only 18 and just starting out with a tough act to follow. Then after the Athens Olympics, you, Kim, Lee, and Yoo all retired at once. Lee Yong-dae, now 18, and Jung Jae-sung, older but still without extensive international experience, are now the top team in a country with a glorious men’s doubles tradition. How do the two situations compare?

Ha: Comparing our situation in ’92 with theirs today? Well, I joined the national team in December of 1992. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of tournament experience. If I compare that with Jung Jae-sung and Lee Yong-dae today, well, first, in 1993, there were only about 10 or 12 men on the national team but today there are over 20. So today they have more people on the team and therefore more guys to train with. In addition, in terms of playing tournaments, the state of development of the national team has improved considerably since ’93, so the players, even at a very young age, have already accumulated a lot of tournament experience. For a player like Lee Yong-dae, especially, I think the conditions exist now whereby it’s possible to produce an eighteen-year-old who can reach a number-two world ranking.

BZI: Is there anything in particular that you remember from your experiences in 2001 about the Spanish fans?

Ha: Well, I don’t remember anything specifically about the fans but I do remember that when we flew to Madrid we landed at around 11PM. We then had to take a bus for 6 hours to get to Seville. So I remember coming in on the bus at around 4AM and there were people everywhere and the lights were all still on in the amusement park. It was in full swing. And I remember thinking “Wow, look at the people in this country! Even in the early morning!” Of course, before I visited Spain I had already heard a lot about the Spanish being very passionate people and so forth, but when I went there I thought “Now here are people who really know how to have fun.” The night life is at a whole different level.

BZI: Did you get any chance to try Spanish food or did you eat mostly Korean food you took with you?

Ha: Yes,we took our food with us and cooked it there. Because of the tournament schedule, we didn’t have much opportunity to try the local food.

BZI: Jung Jae-sung told us that the job of cooking for the team fell to Kim Joong-soo, the head coach. Is that always the case that the head coach does the cooking?

Ha: Yes, even in 2001. At that time Kim was one of the rank-and-file coaches and he was called upon to cook. Then even after he became the head coach, the coaches working under him just couldn’t cook so Coach Kim continued to cook for the team because he was the best at it. Playing a lot of tournaments abroad every year and living that kind of lifestyle for 10 years or so as he has, he has developed the skill.

BZI: One must admit that isn’t the sort of task one normally associates with the head coach of a badminton team.

Ha: Well, how the team eats is pretty important too, after all.

BZI: This year Spain is hosting the World Championships for the second time in only five years. Do you find this unusual, given that Spain isn’t a country with a reputation for badminton popularity or for producing top players?

Ha: I can’t explain that either. It is true that the countries in Europe you normally think of as badminton nations are England or Denmark and at tournaments in those countries you know that there will be people supporting their own country’s players. In the case of Spain, when I first went there I remember thinking there really were a lot of spectators. Now, whether it is just a sports-loving country or whether badminton is indeed that popular there, I really can’t say, but I did find the number of spectators surprising.

BZI: Do you think it is a conscious effort by the International Badminton Federation to try to increase the sport’s popularity?

Ha: That I don’t know. However, last year, when the championships were held in the United States, they did make it clear that it was being hosted by the United States as part of an effort to achieve global popularity for the sport.

BZI: Last year, when the World Championships were held in the U.S., no one expected the home country to win a gold medal. Tony Gunawan did, and of course, he also managed to win that final against you and Kim Dong-moon back in 2001. Considering that you and he are the same age, is it difficult to keep winning once you pass 30?

Ha: Well, you need to take care of your fitness level, and it appears that he has done that. If you look at the players from around the world, especially the European players tend to stay fit and keep playing longer. Tony Gunawan, too, went to the U.S. in 2001 and studied for two or three years but kept his fitness and skill level up and made a successful comeback.

BZI: These days we’ve seen Tony Gunawan go to the United States and your former partner, Kim Dong-moon, is now in Canada although he is not playing competitively there. Is there a chance that we’ll see Ha Tae-kwun taking his expertise overseas someday?

Ha: If the opportunity arises, perhaps. As I see it, the conditions would have to be right but basically, I’d like to go abroad for badminton.

BZI: Given that there still aren’t a lot of world-class players in North America, do you think that having stars like Kim Dong-moon, Ardy Wiranata, Tony Gunawan and Halim Haryanto there is good for badminton?

Ha: Well, compared to Asia or Europe it doesn’t seem that there is as much interest in badminton in North America. Although I didn’t actually go to the worlds in the U.S. last year, from what Kim Dong-moon said, most of the spectators were Asian-Americans. So keeping in mind that the sport may not really be that popular in the mainstream, if players are hoping to go overseas to help the growth of the sport, they need to think twice about what they hope to achieve.

BZI: What advice do you have for the players representing Korea at the World Championships this year?

Ha: Well, of course, my career as a national team player has ended but to the younger players on the team, I’d like to say that the years I spent playing badminton for Korea were the happiest of my life. Just playing the game on the court, going to tournaments: it was the happiest time. Although the training is difficult, although you have the nervousness before the big matches and the disappointment after the tough losses, in many ways I wish I were still at it. So to the younger players, I’d like to say: give it all you’ve got, while you can, so that later there are no regrets.

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Don Hearn

About Don Hearn

Don Hearn is an Editor and Correspondent who hails from a badminton-loving town in rural Canada. He joined the Badzine team in 2006 to provide coverage of the Korean badminton scene and is committed to helping Badzine to promote badminton to the place it deserves as a global sport. Contact him at: don @ badzine.net