Looking for gold, not camouflage

Seeking gold at the Asian Games in Incheon is, for many of Korea’s male athletes, not only a quest for home glory, but also a ticket out of two years […]

Seeking gold at the in Incheon is, for many of Korea’s male athletes, not only a quest for home glory, but also a ticket out of two years of .

Photos: Badmintonphoto and Don Hearn

This week marks the home stretch for athletes looking to medal at the Incheon Asian Games.  However, Monday also saw the ominous appearance, on the Badminton Korea Association website among other places, of notice of a looming application deadline for the Korea Armed Forces Athletic Corps.  The deadline comes just a few weeks after the closing ceremony in Incheon and for many men in the Korean sporting world, a gold medal in Incheon is the last hope they have for exemption from service.

Three members of the Korean badminton contingent that settled into the Athletes’ Village this week are currently serving in the Corps, known as Sangmu, as is one other member of the national team.  For Yoo Yeon Seong and Son Wan Ho, the last of their 21 military months is nearly up while men’s doubles World Champion Ko Sung Hyun has another year to go.  Three more players have already earned their exemptions: Lee Yong Dae with his Olympic gold in Beijing, Lee Hyun Il with men’s team gold at the 2002 Busan Asiade, and Shin Baek Cheol with his mixed doubles gold in Guangzhou four years ago.

Neither the Sangmu application period, nor the rules for exemption are unique to badminton.  Rather they apply to any of the 454 Korean men in the Athletes’ Village who have not either already served or previously earned their exemption.  Not all who fail to win gold at the Asian Games will be applying but sometime before they are 28, they either need to apply for this type of service or perform regular military service, an option which will take any player out of active competition and training for 21 months.

In badminton, all four players who are still candidates for future military service have a chance at earning the exemption this month.  Foremost among them are world #5 Kim Ki Jung / Kim Sa Rang (pictured).  If Kim Sa Rang, who just turned 25, can go for broke in the men’s doubles competition, then a gold medal is a definite possibility, as they have scored victories over most of the other main contenders.  However, there is a question mark given the elder Kim’s impending surgery for the injury that kept him from his World Championship semi-final.  While Lee Dong Keun cannot be considered a candidate for gold in the men’s singles event, both he and youngster Jeon Hyeok Jin can still dare to dream of contributing to a men’s team gold.

Although many top players in recent years have been able to continue playing on the national team while completing their military service, the exemption still holds out much more in benefits that simply the avoidance of a month of basic training.  For one thing, during military service, players are not able to receive the salary they normally get from their pro badminton teams for domestic play.  Another is that if Lee or either of the Kims is called up in the next two years, basic training could well cause a crucial interruption of their badminton training or points accumulation during the qualification period for the Rio Olympics.  They will be particularly glad that this chance comes when they are playing so close to home, as all three went to high school less than 15km from Gyeyang Gymnasium.

So look for some hungry Korean athletes starting this weekend, some of whom will be motivated by more than just the quest for gold and glory.

See our related 2013 articles on Badzine for more on the Korea Armed Forces Athletic Corps system and on Yoo Yeon Seong’s experience in particular.

Badzine will be on site in Incheon right from Day 1 of the 2014 Asian Games badminton competition to bring you live photos and reports.

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