Daegu 2011 – An Armchair Interpretation of the Plight of Two Underachieving Nations in Track and Field

A few days before the IAAF World Athletics Championship in Daegu commenced, the president of Korea Lee Myung Bak proudly declared that the championships would inspire Koreans to develop their abilities in this area. But after only five days, Yonhap News declared that Korea is in danger of getting shut out after missing so many goals with their athletes being forced to watch from the sidelines as headline after headline was created by the international community. Did something go wrong, or should they have just not have been so excited? Perhaps they should have spoken to Ireland beforehand.

Ireland and Korea are not renowned for their prowess in track and field. Daegu 2011 is another good example of this. This isn’t an attempt to disparage the efforts of those who have put their heart and soul into competing in the event – my own efforts pale in comparison to theirs – but, as the title would suggest, an armchair analysis of the whole rigmarole.

Being from Ireland I’m no stranger to national underachievement at the international level. Many Irish would agree that we are the country that almost did everything, but then just weren’t good enough. I’d argue that it suits our personality – defeat is something we’re used to and we prefer to suffer in that regard, as opposed to winning because we aren’t sure what to do with success. The recession in Ireland at the moment and reason it happened are a good example of this.

Korea has been getting used to success recently also. Not only in the global markets with Samsung and the likes dominating, but Korea is also successful in the sporting world. The World Cup in 2002 may have been a springboard to this. Of course, in other sports Korea is a serious competitor. Take a look at the Olympics’ medal winners list and you will regularly see Korea close to the top. Korea literally cleans up in several martial arts areas and also archery and shooting in both men’s and women’s categories. You can even carry this over to the winter Olympics. In the last winter Olympics, Korea was one of the top medal earners thanks to the exploits of their much unsung heroes, the speed skaters!

I think, if you take a look at Ireland’s Olympic successes over the years you will find that success hasn’t completed alluded us completely, much of this praise must go to the boxers, and certainly not those in show jumping who embarrassed the country in two successive Olympics.

Anyway, there’s something romantic about always coming close to victory, isn’t there?

Track and field, I think, more than any sport (I’m going to label all that track and field espouses as a sport purely for this post so please allow me the inaccuracy) really ignites our passions thanks to the proximity so many great athletes can come to victory only to fail. Usain Bolt’s false start in the 100 metres in Daegu was a perfect example of this. One small mistake can cost you everything and I think it’s this attraction that makes this the most exciting aspect and takes it above all other sports.

It’s also a very individualistic sport. With the exception of the relay teams, everyone competes on their own and often against people from their own country. This individualism is very lonely but for those who come close, or who are lucky enough to succeed, it creates heroes. Sonia O’Sullivan for Ireland was a huge national hero who came so close so many times. In Korea Kim Yu Na, the ice skater – not a track and field athlete but an athlete whose individual performance required perfection to reach the heights she achieved – is a national idol whose success will be very hard to emulate.

But for both countries it has been very hard to achieve greatness in track and field. You can blame many things such as the size of each country, the lack of investment in grass roots areas, or even the lack of talent. I think though, it is something deeper that is carried within the national consciousness that affects both countries and the athletes ability to be more successful overall in track and field. It’s is apathy.

Generally, in Ireland you will never hear of or see an athletics championship or race on the television unless an Irish person is primed to do well in it, and even then you would be lucky. I think the same is the case for Korea. Yes, we will support our own but most likely only when they are in a position to succeed beyond the usual expected mediocrity in the sport, or in any sport for that matter.

Another good example of this outside of track and field is Irish people’s support of Conor Niland who was the first Irishman to qualify for the Wimbledon tennis championship. Yes we wished him well, but knew he wouldn’t go far and enjoyed the tennis that little bit more because we could root for someone relatively closely associated to us.

In Korea when the world cup in Germany was taking place in 2006 I found it hard to hear any news about the world cup after Korea was eliminated early on in the group stages. In 2010 in South Africa this was again the case, but Korea put on a pretty good show and enough people were now interested in other teams’ successes that you could pick up more information. I even stayed up, and so did my next door neighbours, to watch the final all the way to its end.

What I can tell you from this is that the interest beyond Korea’s ability had grown because people grew to accept the failures of the national team and to enjoy the rest of the competition. This is the case in Ireland too although you can’t really escape things like Wimbledon in Ireland because of the extensive coverage by the BBC.

Another reason that Korean and Irish people show apathy towards other sports, and especially track and field, is the dominance of other sports in the country. In Korea baseball is a hugely popular domestic sport that has also recently seen success abroad with near misses in the World Baseball Classic. Sports in Ireland struggle to compete against the popularity of the GAA which dominates the country for the summer months and in many areas for the entire year. Both Ireland and Korea have also come under the lucrative hypnosis of the English Premier League.

With these distractions it is easy to see why people don’t want to put in the long lonely hours struggling to become a world class athlete when a cable tv subscription and a good imagination can make you a national hero all from the comfort of your couch and flatscreen tv.

So what now? Well, Ireland is well aware of its status in world athletics. Korea probably is too. People however cannot expect victory though to inspire a nation. Other ways could be embarrassment and jealousy. For Korea, this is where I would look to after Daegu. I’ll give you an example why I think this will work (in Ireland we gave up on this direction long ago).

I was in the swimming pool earlier and as I got changed there was a television on showing highlights from last night’s races. It was a women’s hurdles event. There were around ten men standing around staring as two tall black women, one from the US and the other from Jamaica, destroyed the rest of the field to take gold and silver. The men were impressed. Then they showed the high jump, with a man from Qatar attempting a considerable height which he failed. The men were seriously interested and getting behind the competitors, as is usually the case at these events. But I also got the impression that they knew there should be some Koreans there.

To be left standing with no control over proceedings as your own party continues is not a good feeling. Korea has probably realised this. Building up a strong national side does not only require money and technology, it also requires national support and national interest.

Could you imagine training your heart out to turn up at an important race and finding a half empty stadium? Why would you bother competing for your country if this was the case? This is why every kid wants to play for Korea’s or Ireland’s national football team, and not spend long hours making themselves run half a yard faster on a straight piece of tarmac.

Regardless of how full Daegu Stadium is for these athletic championships, it’s the smaller stadiums and events that need filling first. People are fickle and with the chance of fame the right attitude is a lot easier to maintain.

The very best of luck to all those in both the Korean and Irish teams at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu. Your countries are behind you 100% even though it might not look it, all they need is a reason to cheer!


For those interested, so far Irish athletes are in the final of three events this weekend:

–          Saturday 3 September: Deirdre Ryan – High Jump & Ciarán Ó’Lionáird – 1500 metres

–          Sunday 4 September: Alistair Ian Cragg – 5000 Metres

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