Mixed reactions from S. Korean athletes, coaches to Tokyo 2020 postponement

March 26, 2020

Olympic gymnastics champion Yang Hak-seon had been peaking just in time for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, originally slated to start July 24.

When the men’s vault gold medalist from the 2012 London Games heard the news Tuesday night that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had postponed the Olympics to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, his first thought was, “How am I going to keep doing this for another year?”

In this file photo from June 19, 2019, South Korean gymnast Yang Hak-seon reacts after completing his routine in the men's vault at the Korea Cup at Halla Gymnasium in Jeju, Jeju Island. (Yonhap)
In this file photo from April 28, 2019, South Korean fencer Oh Sang-uk poses with the champion's trophy after winning the men's sabre competition at the Seoul Grand Prix at SK Handball Gymnasium in Seoul. (Yonhap)
This photo provided by the Badminton Korea Association on March 19, 2020, shows the women's doubles team of Lee So-hee (L) and Shin Seung-chan in action during the All England Open in Birmingham, England. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)
In this file photo from Jan. 14, 2020, South Korean Greco-Roman wrestler Ryu Han-su smiles during a match at the Olympic trials at Hampyeong Culture and Sports Center in Hampyeong, 380 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

In this file photo from June 19, 2019, South Korean gymnast Yang Hak-seon reacts after completing his routine in the men’s vault at the Korea Cup at Halla Gymnasium in Jeju, Jeju Island. (Yonhap)

“I wanted to be able to compete in the Olympics when my body was in perfect condition, and I guess luck wasn’t on my side this time,” the 27-year-old said. “I am at a point in my career where it’s become difficult for me to ramp back up once I slow down. My goal is to stay consistent and maintain my form for next year’s Olympics.”

Yang may well have been speaking for fellow athletes. On one hand, they believe the IOC made the right call in rescheduling the Games. Most of them had expected the Olympics to be moved, given that COVID-19 has disrupted most major sporting events. On the other hand, they were gearing up for the Olympics in 2020, not in 2021. It was shocking to be told to wait till next year, just four months away from the competition.

Park Sang-young, the men’s epee fencing gold medalist from Rio 2016, said he had mixed feelings about the postponement.

“I don’t have to fret about whether or not the Olympics will take place, and this gives me more time to prepare,” Park said. “But at the same time, I am going to have to stay mentally sharp until next year. The big picture doesn’t change, though. I’ll still be fencing, and I just have to control what I can control.”

Fellow fencer Oh Sang-uk, world No. 1 in the men’s sabre discipline, said the extra time would allow him to take a break.

“I’ll be able to spend some time with myself,” he said. “I don’t think constant, around-the-clock training will do me any good. I will sit back and relax for a bit and try to rediscover some confidence.”

Modern pentathlete Jun Woong-tae, an under-the-radar medal contender, isn’t lacking any confidence. Having his potential coronation pushed back by a year has done nothing to shake Jun’s belief in himself.

“I don’t think anything really changes. I am still confident,” Jun said. “Everyone is dealing with the same situation. I was just hoping the Olympics wouldn’t be canceled. The next 12 months or so will be challenging, but I am ready to work.”

Jun is 24 and may not even have reached his prime. He will likely have an easier time maintaining his form. He may even perform better next year than this year.

The same can’t be said about 30-somethings who have seen better days. Two members of the men’s wrestling team, Kim Hyeon-woo (31) and Ryu Han-su (32), fall into that category.

Their head coach, Park Chi-ho, said the one-year delay will likely work against those two.

“Our athletes were pretty dejected to hear the news (of the postponement),” Park said. “It’s tough for them to keep their weight off, and they will have to deal with some mental hurdles if we have to do Olympic trials again.”

National badminton players learned that the Olympics would be postponed while self-isolating at home after returning from the All England Open on March 18.

Shin Seung-chan, world No. 4 in women’s doubles with partner Lee So-hee, said she’s itching to get going again, but the self-quarantine period, plus the rescheduling of the Olympics, will allow her and her teammate to regroup, mentally and physically.

“So-hee hasn’t been 100 percent, and we’ve been grinding through a lot of tournaments,” Shin said. “This delay of the Olympics will give us a chance to heal and be even in better form. We’re going to take our time to prepare the best we can.”