South Korea has the tendency to place individual sports men and women on a pedestal, worshipping them at an almost god-like level. We look at the 10 most popular of those idols from 2014, most of who you would have had trouble avoiding if you own a TV, occasionally drink in a bar or happen to walk past any screen in the country.
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Lets gets started with the top sports idols.
Little League Baseball Team
True, this is a team rather than an individual, but it would be hard to exclude the Korean boys who made history this summer and at the same time found a place in the heart of the nation. For the first time in 29 years South Korea’s little league team, all aged between 11 and 13, won the World Series for their age group and found themselves on the front page of every newspaper in the country. They had gone to the U.S., the home of baseball, and beat the best in their own backyard, even though there are only two baseball fields that meet the international regulations for little league in all of South Korea.
Since then the expectations for the future of Korean baseball have gone through the roof, and some of the more recognisable players like Choi Hae-chan have been meeting professionals and pitching the first ball at KBO matches. In ten years time we might just be talking about the greatest baseball generation the country has ever seen.
- Kang Jeong-ho (Baseball)
Nexen Heroes’ shortstop Kang beats out his more decorated teammate Park Byung-ho. After a highly impressive season in the KBO, which also included his leading performance during the national team’s run to the gold medal at the Asian Games, it is almost certain that Kang will be making the switch to one of the eight MLB teams chasing his signature. The Korean press has already be warming up for his move, with many analysts discussing if he has the ability to make it in the much tougher American leagues.
One thing is for sure, a move across the Pacific will boost his already rising popularity and unite South Korean support behind him. The dream is he joins Ryu Hyun-jin at the LA Dodgers, but that may just be too much to hope for.
- Park Inbee (Golf)
By the incredible standards she set last year, 2014 has been fairly subdued for Park Inbee. However she still looks like ending the season as the world number one and in the process she has won her fifth major title at the LPGA Championship. She is now tied with her hero and South Korean golfing legend Park Se-ri for number of majors and it seems only a matter of time before she surpasses her.
Her popularity has been cemented by her various trips back to the country to play on the Korean Tour, including the Jeju Masters where she hit a hole-in-one to please the crowds that gathered to see her. Park will go down as both the most successful and most popular South Korean golfer of all time, no matter what she does from now.
- Kim Yeon-koung (Volleyball)
Of all the stars on this list, Kim Yeon-koung is probably the most internationally recognised player within her sport in terms of talent alone. During the Women’s Volleyball World Grand Prix, she was described as “the best player in the world” by the German head coach, who went on to say “I have not seen anyone like her in the last 30 years.” Already a popular figure, her status as a national hero was secured this year when she led the South Korean women’s volleyball team to gold in Incheon.
Her individual popularity may be exactly what volleyball needs to grow and develop in the country. Just like the WBC vastly increased the popularity of baseball, the team’s gold medal and her success in Europe with Turkish side Fenerbahce can make her a role model for those that want to take up the sport.
- Lee Sang-hwa (Speed Skating)
There are no South Korean sports stars more dominant than Lee Sang-hwa. She became only the third woman ever to win back-to-back 500m speed skating Olympic gold medals at Sochi. She delivered the nation’s first gold medal of Sochi under the huge weight of expectation, in Olympic record time to boot.
At Sochi, her poster of encouragement to her teammates before they competed in relay which said ‘even if it’s not a gold, you are the best’ resonated with those ashamed of the gold-or-bust culture in Korean sport and endeared her even more to the people. Since then she has appeared on various popular TV programmes including Infinite Challenge and Healing Camp, which has allowed the public to see the softer side of her.
“I don’t like to be considered a phenomenon in my country,” she said after her gold medal. “I am not a star. I dislike hearing it again and again.” With the next winter games in South Korea, she may have to get used to it.
- Park Tae-hwan (Swimming)
2014 was actually not the perfect year for South Korea’s most popular swimmer. He suffered from extreme nerves at the Asian Games, maybe due to the fact he was competing in a pool bearing his name and with the weight of a nation on him, meaning he could not bring home the gold he so desperately wanted. However, he has never lost his popularity. His three bronze and one silver in Incheon made him the most decorated Asian Games athlete in South Korean history, with his 400m race attracting the highest TV ratings of the games.
His modesty and soft nature has always made him a very popular figure. After missing out on a gold, he publically apologised to the nation. In the public’s eyes he has nothing to apologize for after 8 years at the very top of the swimming world, and if he can find another sponsor he may well have more to give.
- Son Yeon-jae (Gymnastics)
The young gymnast is on the brink of taking Kim Yuna’s spot as the Queen of South Korean hearts. Thrust into the limelight after the 2012 London Olympics, she won a comprehensive gold at the Asian Games to make her one of the star attractions. Her ability to handle pressure and to maintain her happy-go-lucky personality this year has been the key to her popularity and at such a young age this could only be the start.
There was no way you could have avoided her face over the last three months. Now a celebrity in her own right she will have to contend with the media attention she is bound to experience for the rest of her career. If this year is anything to go by, she has broad shoulders to bear the weight.
- Son Heung-min (Football)
The Bayer Leverkusen star was one of the only South Koreans to come out of the World Cup this year with an improved reputation. He was the standout player for the Taeguk Warriors despite a terrible tournament for the team, and showed why he is wanted by a host of European clubs. His tears at the final whistle of the Belgium game endeared him even further to fans that were feeling the same pain as the nation got up in the early hours of the morning to watch their team underperform.
Son has taken his good form into the start of the season in Germany and in the Champions League, and he has established himself as the best South Korean player of his generation. With the Asian Cup coming up in January, he has the chance to reach Park Ji-sung levels of popularity.
- Ryu Hyun-jin (Baseball)
This man pitches, the country stops. Students watch in their classes, workers peer at his games secretly on their office computers and the public transport is full of people glued to their phones on TV mode. Ryu has become a phenomenon as he continues to perform well at the LA Dodgers. Even though he suffered an injury hit season, he won 14 games and maintained a low ERA to retain his position as the biggest South Korean star in the MLB.
The big man is currently back in his home country, and even his return to the airport counts as a major event worthy of national news coverage. If he ever makes it to a World Series, Korean GDP could experience its biggest dip since 1997.
- Kim Yuna (Ice Skating)
Cast your minds all the way back to Feb. 20 this year, the day Russia became the least popular country in South Korea. Kim Yuna, clear favourite for the figure skating gold medal, finished second place behind home favourite Adelina Sotnikova in a highly controversial decision. The whole nation, who had come to a standstill to watch their hero in her last competitive performance, were in uproar. S 1.7million people within 48 hours, 90 percent from South Korea, signed a petition calling for an investigation into the judging at the competition. The South Korean public jumped to the defence of their most beloved sports star.
Kim Yuna’s popularity remains unbelievably high despite her retirement after the Olympics and she continues to make the headlines away from the ice. If anything, the result from Sochi has brought the public even closer to Kim and the judging that day will remain in the national conscious for a long time. Good luck to the Russian skaters at Pyeongchang in 2018.