YOO YONG SUNG Welcomes Asia’s Best to Suwon

On April 7th, most of Asia’s top badminton players will be headed to Suwon, Korea for the 2009 Happy Suwon Badminton Asia Championships.  For a city that has long been […]

On April 7th, most of Asia’s top badminton players will be headed to Suwon, Korea for the 2009 Happy Suwon .  For a city that has long been a large pin on Korea’s badminton map, hosting these championships is the latest step in a ten-year plan to re-invent itself as a true badminton mecca.  One of the lynchpins in this plan is 2003 Asian Champion and two-time Olympic silver medallist Yoo Yong Sung.  Last week, Yoo took the time to talk to Badzine about his career outside of international badminton and about the place his city of Suwon holds in it.

By Don Hearn, Badzine Correspondent.  Photos: Don Hearn and Badmintonphoto.com

Yoo Yong Sung is one of Korea’s most successful badminton players.  Though throughout their career, they had to share the limelight with their teammates and rivals Kim Dong Moon and Ha Tae Kwun, Yoo and partner Lee Dong Soo carved out a definite niche for themselves in badminton history.  Apart from the Asian Games gold they won at home in 2002, they also won the Asian Badminton Championships and the All England as well as two Swiss Open titles and two consecutive Olympic silver medals.  Though known primarily as a men’s doubles specialist, Yoo’s first big title came a week before his 20th birthday, when he and Chung So Young took mixed doubles gold at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima.

Yoo was one of five top Korean stars who left the international scene immediately after the Athens Olympics and is the only one of those five who has not strayed back even for a home event.  With three tournaments that gave him his most prestigious titles all taking place within a month, he can’t help but feel the pangs of a sidelined competitor.

On one hand, it’s great to just watch our younger players take on the challenge but I’m an athlete and this was my life so, of course, part of me wishes I were out there still competing,” says Yoo, who was not even 30 when he hung up his national team uniform in 2004.  At 34, he is a few months younger than Indonesia’s Flandy Limpele – one of the favourites for the mixed doubles title – and just a year older than Candra Wijaya and Malaysia’s Lee Wan Wah, both of whom are still at the top of the men’s game.

I’m not at all surprised that several of my contemporaries are still in the game,” says Yoo.  “In my case as well, after the Athens Olympics, I still felt the desire to keep on playing, but if I had, the younger players would have faced difficulty getting places on the national team or in tournaments.  So I decided to step aside so that the younger players could have a chance.

When I was on the national team, I was just a player so as long as everything was going okay for myself and my partner on the court, that was all I had to worry about,” says Yoo, who is a playing for the newly formed Suwon City Hall Badminton Team.  “One of the biggest differences, now that I am both a player and a coach, is that I have to take responsibility not only for what goes on in my life and my game but I also have to be there for my players, both in their games and in their lives.  That makes my present role much more difficult.

After retiring from international play, Yoo continued to play professional badminton for the Suwon-based Samsung Electromechanics team as he had since 1997.  However, in 2005, he began to weigh his career options.

On one hand, I was content to continue playing with Samsung but it was less clear what I would move into when my playing career ended and I had my family to think about.  I considered different paths including going abroad to study, or getting into coaching here in Korea.  At that time, Suwon Mayor Kim Yong Seo  approached me with his idea of working in Suwon to develop badminton both at the elite and recreational level.  As I was working at the time as a trainer for the national team, I thought it would be difficult but after meeting with Mayor Kim a second time, I decided to make the move to Suwon.

At the time that Yoo became the marquee player for the new city team, Suwon already had a thriving system for recreational badminton, with half a dozen brand-new dedicated badminton facilities springing up in the last five years to add to the many multi-purpose gymnasia at schools and corporate and community centres already being used intensively for the sport.  Mayor Kim Yong Seo (pictured on the right with the mixed doubles winners at the 2007 Suwon International) was first introduced to badminton by the then chair of the Suwon Badminton Association Lee Jae Bok.  Lee, an internationally recognized coach, is from Suwon originally and worked to drum up interest in the sport in the local political circles.

Yoo’s role was to add an elite dimension to the city thus filling a noticeable void in what was otherwise a solid badminton infrastructure.  Yoo coaches some recreational players in addition to playing in domestic tournaments for Suwon.  Recently, the team’s stature was raised somewhat as, for the first time, they signed two active national team members in Yoo Yeon Seong and Lee Cheol Ho.

Suwon is also in the process of building up a youth program with a string of new girls’ teams at the elementary to high school level.  Yoo says that the plan is to have the youth program producing national-level results within ten years.

Yoo himself originally hails from a small town on the west coast of Korea, which has always had a badminton program but is an otherwise little-known centre.  Although it, too, has a strong professional team, Yoo says returning to his roots was not a top priority.

On one hand it is an attractive notion to give back to the place that gave me my start but in fact, many of the faces have changed so it’s hardly even the same program.  And although I am thankful for the grounding I got in my hometown, I’ve also moved around the country a lot and am now grateful to a lot more people in many different places.

So for me now, wherever I am, I want to do my best for badminton.   Besides, Suwon is now basically my second hometown so I have no problem finishing out my career here.

Yoo, who married while still at the height of his career, has lived in the city with his wife for ten years and this is now the hometown of their two sons.  Oddly enough, Yoo’s wife had no prior connection to the world of badminton before marrying Yoo, who realizes it has not been easy for her.

A lot of people asked me about that when I was on the national team.  I am so grateful to my wife for all she put up with.  For one thing, tournaments kept me on the road for 6 or 7 months of the year and for much of the remainder I was living at the national training centre in Seoul.  When I did see her we’d no sooner get together than we’d be apart again and limited to contact by telephone.  So I am so grateful to her for being so understanding.

So what would Yoo, a father of two, say about the odds of the son of a badminton star becoming one himself?

I get that question a lot, too, and actually, when I was a kid growing up in the countryside, I didn’t have a lot of options.  The education system was lacking and even in terms of sports, badminton was the only elite avenue open.

In my sons’ case, they have so many more options than I had so I try to give them the chance to try sports and to try to succeed academically and then to take the road that suits them best. I don’t want to push them into sports just because I am an athlete.

Although he believes his younger son may be destined for a life of sports, Yoo says he won’t be counselling him to choose badminton.

Of course I have spent my life playing the game, but I know how difficult it is and I feel that it is so difficult to get out of it as much as you have to put in to be the best.  So as a father, I would want my son to go in a direction where he can be properly compensated.  Having said that, I don’t in any way regret having chosen a life of badminton.  I just want the best for my kids.

So how did Yoo Yong Sung choose that life of badminton, or did badminton choose him?

Actually, one day after gym class, our teacher asked who wanted to try out for the badminton team.  None of us put up our hands so the coach chose the tallest kids in the class and asked us to join the team,” chuckles the 170cm Yoo.  “I am pretty short now but at that time I was tall for my age.  Once I got into it, I found the sport really suited me and I got along well with the older players on the team.

Yoo refused to speculate on whether someone without his experience would be more or less likely to discourage their child from taking up such a demanding sport but pointed out that these days, so many recreational players are encouraging their children to play badminton.  Few of those children have the will to take on the sport as a full-time lifestyle.

Children who want to do sports are normally drawn to the big money of baseball or golf but Yoo points out that when he was a child, he had neither options nor information about the long-term prospects for professional sports.  He stayed focussed on badminton and all the while his parents were working long hours trying to make ends meet for Yoo, his older brother, and two older sisters.

Still, Yoo Yong Sung sees a bright future for badminton in Korea.  “Recreational players have taken so much more interest in badminton recently.  Whether that will help it become a truly professional sport, I don’t know, but I think things look good.

Certainly, the marriage of elite and recreational badminton is going strong in Suwon as it prepares to host the biggest badminton event in its history.

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