Rags to Riches: How South Korea Reinvented Its Image Through Sports

South Korea, famous for its dominating arts and culture scene, is also notable for its rising popularity in sports.

A country rich in culture and cuisine, South Korea is also known for its extensive sports scene. The country has taken an active part in the worldwide sports scene over the past century, participating in different sports events of all levels.

Baseball and football are the top two most popular sports in South Korea. Baseball first gained popularity in the 1980s, with 62 percent of South Korea’s population mentioning baseball as their sport. Its popularity has also driven the people of South Korea to enjoy sports betting, where they can choose from a wide range of sports to bet on. 

Next to baseball, football is also considered very popular in South Korea. Every year from March to November, the K League (Korea Professional Football League) runs a nationwide competition between 12 regional teams. 

Some South Korean-born sports professionals have also succeeded in playing at international levels, such as Tottenham Hotspurs’ forward Song Heung-min, former Manchester United player Park Ji-sung and Newcastle United’s Ki Sung-yueng.

South Korea’s sports scene in the past

South Koreans have enjoyed a variety of sports since ancient times. It is believed that ancient sports culture in the country was developed based on martial arts. This can be seen in the long-forbidden Rite of Heaven, an ancient tradition in which an emperor would perform a series of physical activities to confirm his sovereignty. 

The ceremony originated from China and was adopted by several of its neighboring empires in East Asia, including Korea. The ritual was first performed in the Korean Peninsula during the Three Kingdoms period, before the seventh century. 

The Rite of Heaven was performed in a site called Hwangudan and incorporated some physical activities, as well as dancing and singing. Although the ceremony was short-lived, the Rite of Heaven was still considered one of the earliest sports in ancient Korean history. 

Later in the 19th century, as the Joseon dynasty started to open its doors to the outside world, Koreans were introduced to modern sports for the first time. Interestingly enough, sports were also used as a political movement at some point. 

The Korean Empire saw an opportunity to establish laws and systems related to modern sports, making it their goal to strengthen their people’s minds and bodies by encouraging physical activities. One of the Empire’s attempts to further incorporate sports into people’s lives was by making physical education a part of the school curriculum. 

Physical education was also once used to win back national sovereignty under Japanese colonial rule. 

Back then, Koreans were allowed limited PE activities due to colonial situations. This condition was further improved after the March 1st Movement, where the movement inspired Koreans and increased their support for national independence, encouraging more Koreans to participate in more physical activities. 

This resulted in the formation of the Joseon Sports Council, which was founded for the first time on July 13, 1920. As a predecessor to the Korea Sports Council, the organization hosted and sponsored various sports games, including the first All Joseon Baseball Tournament. 

Various sporting events were subsequently disseminated throughout the country, sparking the emergence of professional athletes and increasing public interest in sports. 

From then on, Korea didn’t take long to prove itself as a worthy contender in sports. Their first official participation as an independent country was at the London 1948 Olympic Games. Although by then, the division of Korea wasn’t entirely realized, the Korean Olympic Committee represented only South Korea. The country won two bronze medals in the games, with Kim Sung-Jip (Weightlifting) and Han Soo-Ahn (Boxing) as the recipients. 

Korea received another win at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, where Yang Jung-mo received a gold medal in the featherweight division of wrestling. The country’s sports prowess increased, culminating in South Korea hosting its first Olympic Games in 1988. 

The 1988 Seoul Olympics were the second Olympic games in Asia. The event was reportedly covered by approximately 11,331 media, comprising 4,897 written press and 6,353 broadcasters. South Korea ranked fourth in the event overall, winning 12 gold medals and 33 medals in the competition. 

Meanwhile, the overall medal count was dominated by the Soviet Union, with 55 gold medals and 132 medals in total. Compared to previous summer Olympics, the 1988 Seoul Olympics were the first event without boycotts. 

North Korea boycotted the event, along with five other socialist countries, including Cuba, an ally of North Korea. Several other countries were also known to be absent from the event. Albania, Ethiopia, and Seychelles didn’t respond to the invites sent by the IOC, while Nicaragua didn’t participate due to athletic and financial considerations. Madagascar later withdrew from the competition due to economic reasons.

The 1988 Seoul Olympics significantly contributed tremendously to South Korea’s transformation. It completely transformed South Korea’s once poor, war-stricken image into a rising country full of potential and a promising economy, ready for international cooperation.

Haps Staff
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