Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Korean Sports, a History Written in Sweat

Quarterly the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History hosts a private evening tour for members and friends of members of the Royal Asiatic Society ( And tonight they hosted their 10th private tour for the RAS; this temporary exhibition was on the history of Korean sports, a topic most relevant as in less than two months the 2018 Winter Olympics kicks off Pyeongchang. The outline of the exhibition is as follows:


From ancient times our nation had a unique sports culture. There were physical activities with music and dancing at religious rituals, such as Buyeo's younggo, Goguryeo's dongnaeng, and Dongye's mucheon, and there were activities for physical training related to martial arts, such as archery, riding, ssireum, soobahk, and chajeon nori. Other various traditional folk games also improved the physical strength and the cooperative spirit of the Korean people.  

hunters on sleds

In the late 19th century, Joseon opened its doors to the world amid the plunder of imperialist powers. It was then that modern sports was introduced, also bringing change to the concept of the body. The courts of Joseon and the Korean Empire sought to build up the physical strength and and the hearts of the people by encouraging physical education. Many laws and institutions were established, and "Physical Education" was designated as a school subject.

Physical education during the colonial period took on a different mission -- as a tool for the restoration of national sovereignty. The colonial situation caused many limitations for sports activities of Korean, but with the change in Japanese colonial policies to show a little more flexibility after the March 1st Movement, there was some progress in sports for the Korean people, such as the founding of the Joseon Sports Association in 1920. 

In a situation in which Japanese imperialists oppression continued to intensify, sports contributed to the health of the Korean people, and Korean leaders encouraged sports, believing it would be able to contribute to the restoration of Joseon's national sovereignty. Sports gave courage and strength to a people that had lost their country.

1. Change in the concept of the body

In the traditional concept of the body in Joseon, there was the idea of eating well to maintain good balance and pursue longevity, but there was no concept of actively exercising the body to improve health. The traditional training of the body, in comparison to modern-day sports, was more like a spiritual exercise, in a sphere separate from physical recreation activities. Also, the concept of the body in traditional medicine or philosophy held the organismic perspective, which was greatly different from the Western mechanistic view of the body that was actively being introduced in the late 19th century.

2. Change in the Perception of Sports and the Introduction of Western Sports

After the opening of ports, the perception of physical education in Korea changed. In his Royal Edict on Education, King Gojong emphasized the importance of "intelligence, virtue, and physical fitness," which was a new kind of educational philosophy, placing the same level of importance on physical well-being as on intelligence or virtue. In many newly-established schools, modern sports were introduced. In each school, new subjects such as gymnastics were taught, field days were held, and many different sports activities were encouraged. Since the Hwangseong Young Men's Christian Association (today's YMCA) was founded in 1903, sports competitions were held. The Korean Sports Club, the first private sports organization to be created in Korea, often held competitions both inside and outside the organization, contributing greatly to the expansion of interest in sports.

3. The Establishment of the Joseon Sports Association and Sports Activities

In 1910, when the Korean Empire was annexed by Japan, sports activities run by schools and private organizations became limited. However, after the March 1st Movement, with Japanese colonizers implementing the so-called cultural rule, there were movements to establish sports organizations, started mainly by Koreans who had studied in Japan, and such movements bore fruit on July 13th, 1920, when the Joseon Sports Association was founded. The Joseon Sports Association hosted and supported many different sports events, such as the 1st Joseon Baseball Competition. A variety of sports games were spread, professional athletes appeared, and more people began to be interested in sports.

4. Korean Sportspeople during the Colonial Period

Many Joseon intellectuals and independence activities during the Japanese colonial period considered sports as a way to increase the power of the Korean people. Thanks to the Korean athletes who performed impressively even in competition with Japanese players, the people of Joseon could maintain their hope for independence. Korean athletes who had to participate as Japanese representatives ran with the spirit of Joseon in their hearts although the Japanese flag was on their chests.

1920 in Jeonju


On August 15th, 1945, with the joy of independence, Korean sports also began again. Sportspeople reestablished the Joseon Sports Association, and the Joseon Olympic Committee joined the International Olympic Committee. Korean athletes could finally compete in a competition under the nationality of "Korea" in the 1948 London Olympic Games.

After gaining independence, the Republic of Korea went through many political upheavals. Having emerged from the May 16 Coup in 1961 and continuing until 1979, the Park Chung-hee government developed state-led elite sports through sports policies. The Fifth Republic, which had emerged with a new military regime taking power, made many contributions to the sports sector by giving birth to professional sports and hosting the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic Games, but there was also the aspect of using sports to disperse the people's burning desire for democracy.

1. Korean Sports after Independence

Right after independence, the political situation was in disarray, with the conflict between left and right ideologies. Amidst this situation, sportspeople were very active, reestablishing the Joseon Sports Association, organizing the Joseon Athletics Comrade Society, and hosting the "National Athletic Competition in Celebration of Liberation." During this period, political confusion and conflict caused some sports personalities to meet a tragic death, shocking people in the sports sector. Meanwhile, the Joseon Olympic Committee joined the International Olympic Committee, and in the 1948 London Olympic Games, a Korean delegation was sent to represent "Korea." Kim Seong-jip in weightlifting and Han Soo-am in boxing each won a bronze medal, the first Olympic medals in Korean history.

Suh Yun-bok wins the Boston Marathon (1947)

2. State-led Sports Promotion

In June 1950, the sound of gunfire rang across the Korean Peninsula. The destruction brought by the Korean War caused much suffering to sports people as well. However, while still in war, in 1952, the Republic of Korea participated in the Olympic Games held in Helsinki, Finland, and gave hope and courage to the Korean people who were amid ruins by winning two bronze medals. From the 1960s, sports developed with full support from the state. A large amount of the government budget was allocated to foster sports, and the Taereung National Training Centre was built for the development of elite sports. Sports activities greatly increased in quantity and quality, as teams for different sports were organized and various competitions were held.

President Park Chung-hee visiting the Taereung Training Center (1976)
3. Sports Activities and Sportspeople in the 1960s and 1970s

Korean sports domestically ensured its internal stability and internationally made many good records in overseas competitions. The Korea Sports Council became an overarching organization of the Korean sports sector, as the Korean Olympic Committee and Korea School Sports Association were integrated into it in 1968. The National Athletic Competition gained prominence in the 1960s, The National Athletic Competition gained prominence in the 1960s. Lee Sang-baek and Jang Gi-young were elected as members of the International sports sector. In the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, Yang Jung-mo in wrestling won the first Olympic gold medal for Korea.

Taereung national skating rink (1971)
4. The Beginning of Professional Sports and Athletes

In the early 1980s, professional leagues emerged in sports such as baseball and football. Baseball was already popular due to the high school, vocational baseball boom and the winning of the World Baseball Championship Series (Amateur World Series), but it greatly expanded its influence after professional baseball emerged in 1982. In 1983, professional football and professional ssireum (Korean traditional wrestling), and from the 1990s, professional basketball and professional volleyball emerged. Such efforts allowed Korean sports players in various sports to enhance their performance.

ssireum wrestler Lee Man-ki, Jangchung Stadium (1984)


In the late 1980s, having achieved the results of procedural democracy, Korea also gained much energy in the sports sector. Hosting the 24th Summer Olympic Games in Seoul 1988, Korea showed its national strength and progress to the world.

Afterwards, Korean sports developed in many aspects, but the hosting of international competitions is most noticeable. After the Summer Olympic Games in 1988, Korean also hosted the 2002 Korean-Japan World Cup and the 2011 Daegu World Championships in Athletics. By hosting the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, Korea has achieved a grand slam in hosting the international competitions.

Hosting such events have developed national strength in sports, improved Korean athletes' performance, and increased the level of public interest in sports and better conditions for everyday sports.

1. Hosting the Asian Games and the Seoul Olympic Games

The 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games revealed the economic growth and impressive development of sports in Korea. Especially in the Seoul Olympic Games, the highest number of countries participated in the history of the Games; Korea displayed mature administrative capacity, successfully hosting the event, and also finished 4th in overall rankings. The images of Korea introduced overseas during the Olympic Games also became a chance to present how much growth Korea had seen in general.

official music record "Hand in Hand" from the 24th Olympic Games in Seoul (1982)
official Report of the 24th Olympic Games in Seoul (1988)
2. Achieving the Grand Slam in Hosting International Competitions

Having gained confidence from the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games in hosting international sports events, Korea went on to hold the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup and the 2011 Daegu World Championships in Athletics, and is hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. The 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup was the first time in history that the World Cup was co-hosted by two countries, and it ended in success. Korea also performed well in the World Cup, reaching the semi-finals, and also surprised the world with its passionate, heated street cheering. In the 2011 Daegu World Championships in Athletics, however, public apathy towards the event and the low performance of Korean athletes indicated the challenges that needed to be overcome in the future.

Koreans wearing red and taking to the streets during the country-wide
(even world-wide wherever Koreans could gather) during the 2002 World Cup
3. Korean Athletes Active Overseas

There have been Korean sports stars in each generation who played remarkably well overseas, making Korea known to the world and giving great joy to the Korean people. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Korea's national power was relatively weak and the people had low confidence, the small number of athletes who were active overseas gave refreshing joy to the people. In the 1990s, many more Korean athletes began to perform well abroad, encouraging the Korean people who were in despair due to the IMF crisis.

4. Sportspeople Take on the Winter Olympic Games

The first time Korean athletes participated in the Winter Olympic Games was in the 5th Winter Olympic Games held in 1948 in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Since then, Korea has performed quite well in international winter sports competitions, winning its first medal at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympic Games. Korea Produced many talented players especially in short track speed skating, achieving high ranking in the Winter Olympic Games. Korea has also performed well in other events such as speed skating and figure skating, making itself known worldwide as a country strong in winter sports.

All picture and text credit goes to the organization 
of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History. 

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