Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jeong Darae and the 16th Asian Games

  • Dec. 30th, 2010 at 5:12 AM
Anyone who has read my LiveJournal for a prolonged period of time will know that I am an avid follower of soccer (football). Other sports that I enjoy include handball, badminton, and archery but those are often much harder to watch on a regular basis -- which is why I am so keen to catch them when multinational events such as the Olympics and Asian Games take place. (Although, since coming to Korea, I have attended the Archery World Championships in 2009 and the Women's Junior Handball World Championship in 2010.)

One of the great aspects to these sporting events is seeing a number of athletes that aren't normally in the public's eye. Athletes competing within more popular sports - for example baseball and basketball in the USA or hockey in Canada - are often in the limelight while those competing in sports like sepak takraw, badminton, and archery (among many others) are not. However, multinational sporting events offer a platform for these athletes to shine. I remember the excitement of watching the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and Goodwill Games as an elementary student and learning a little more about competitors and sporting traditions with each round of each edition.

Between overwhelming media coverage and the increased internationalization of the sport it's much harder to muster a similar sense of wonderment when the World Cup takes place. Apart from exceptions like North Korea and New Zealand in the 2010 tournament everyone is already familiar with the players who participate in the World Cup. There are far fewer 'surprise packages' these days. Here is an example of what I'm talking about:

In 1994 Saudi Arabia were participating in their very first World Cup. They were the heavy underdog. Despite this, in their match against Belgium one of the Saudi players collected the ball in his own half and went on a slalom run through the entire Belgian team before slotting the ball past the opposing goalkeeper. The goal is incredible and well worth watching. But you know, at the time nobody knew anything about the goalscorer except that he was named Saeed Al-Owairan, played for Saudi Arabia, and, maybe, that he played for domestic club Al-Shabab. Seeing 'your' team win is always fun, but what often makes these events worth watching are the acts of wonderment that take place.

Getting back to the Asian Games ... (Source)

With all of the above as background I hope you can understand why I was enraptured with the Asian Games last month. It was not uncommon for me to stay up until four in the morning to catch replays of events that I missed during the day, and I saw a little bit of everything. Synchronized swimming, equestrian , field hockey, shooting, and more. It was an emotional rollercoaster to watch the men's third place match in football. South Korea was playing Iran for the bronze medal and were losing 3-1 after 49 minutes. They pulled a goal back in the 77th minute and then scored twice in the dying minutes of the game to win 3-4. However, as great as that was, there is another event that I am more likely to remember from the 16th Asian Games.

The event that I have in mind is swimming, in particular the women's 200m breaststroke. There were 19 events for female swimmers at this year's Asian Games and only two of the gold medals were awarded to athletes from outside the People's Republic of China. One of those is a Chinese-born swimmer representing Singapore while the other is the South Korean swimmer Jeong Darae. In addition to all of the Chinese swimmers in the final of the 200m breaststroke Jeong Darae was also competing against Japanese swimmer Rie Kaneto, who holds the Asian Record for the event.

On November 13th Jeong Darae participated in the 50m breaststroke and finished fourth, just missing out on a medal. Earlier in the day she had been a member of South Korea's Women's 4 x 100m medley relay team that also finished in fourth place. On November 16th she reached the 100m breaststroke final but, for the third time in as many days, finished the race in fourth. The following day, November 17th, Jeong Darae reached the final of the 200m breaststroke and this time she finished first, earning a gold medal for her accomplishment.

정다래 금메달, image from MBC Sports

With the disappointments of the previous events in mind it probably won't come as a surprise to hear that she was happy with the result. Actually, she burst into tears immediately following the race, but what 18 year old wouldn't be excited? After pulling herself out of the water Jeong Darae sat down at the pool's edge with tears pouring down her face, couldn't make it through her interview with the Korean press because she was still crying, and was also teary-eyed for the medal ceremony. The victory obviously meant a lot to her.

정다래 눈물의 인터뷰에 네티즌 반응 폭발! "울음 뚝!" [ link ], image from SBS News

One of the things that really struck me is that the reporters never lowered their microphones and recording devices despite Jeong Darae clearly being overwhelmed by events. She couldn't say more than three or four words before breaking out into tears so the media's continued presence - or the microphones at least - felt very awkward. However, this could be due to a bias from usually watching team sports that take place on a field or court that the media is generally not allowed to enter. Well, that and the athletes involved are typically older than 18 and compete professionally. Professional athletes have become another kind of celebrity in the modern era, so in that case it's a little easier to accept. ("We'll pay you millions of dollars to chase a ball around for 90 minutes, but only if we can shove a camera in your face afterward.")

It's a little harder to wrap my head around something similar happening with the amateur athletes that are competing in the Asian Games and Olympics. I suppose it's possible to argue that the reporters were trying to 'capture the moment' as best they could despite their invasive behavior -- and there is a precedent from the interactions with professional athletes. That didn't make the situation with Jeong Darae any less jarring for me, though.

So how did she react during the official press conference after the medal ceremony? Jeong Darae was paired with fellow swimmer Park Tae Hwan and all of the photos I've found online of the pair feature Jeong Darae smiling (perhaps nervously) and Park Tae Hwan acting like a bit of a goofball, so I'd like to think things went well.

정다래 와 박태환, image from 종앙일보 뉴스

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