Much-hyped inter-Korean vault showdown fizzles

September 25, 2014

Yang Hak-seon settles for silver

Yang Hak-sun walks away disappointed. (Yonhap)

Yang Hak-seon walks away disappointed. (Yonhap)

INCHEON (Yonhap) — The much-hyped inter-Korean gymnastics duel in the men’s vault fizzled at the Asian Games on Thursday, with neither of the two main attractions able to take the top position on the podium.

Yang Hak-seon, dubbed “God of Vault (도마의 신)” in South Korea, took the silver medal, while his North Korean rival Ri Se-gwang, after a botched landing in his first attempt, settled for fourth place.

Ri had won the Asiad gold in 2006 while Yang was the champ in 2010. Yang then added the 2011 and 2013 world titles and the 2012 Olympic gold medal to his credit.

Yang proved to be human, as Shek Wai Hung of Hong Kong stole the show and ruined the evening for many in the stands clamoring for golden moments for the gymnasts from either side of the border.

Shek claimed his first Asiad gold with 15.216 points, while Yang earned 15.200 points. Ri missed out on the podium by the narrowest of the margins, as Huang Xi of China earned 14.800 points, and Ri had 14.799 points.

Yang has been dealing with a nagging leg injury for days and was forced to cut his practice short in the buildup to the final. Even the nature of his injury puzzled the public, with the training staff saying it was a hamstring injury and Yang’s head coach, Oh Sang-bong, saying he wasn’t entirely sure where exactly Yang was suffering.

In the qualification for the vault, Ri topped the field and led Yang by 0.025 points. Yang, sounding confident, earlier said he had a lower starting score than Ri and had better execution. The South Korean also opined that Ri’s dismount lacked polish.

Yang also said he would play it safe in the final to make sure he could defend his Asiad gold.

Yang stepped out of the line on his first landing. Needing a big score in the second try, Yang tried to do “Yang 2″ but ended up doing “Lopez,” which requires three turns in air.

Despite a sound landing, Yang didn’t score enough to overtake Shek.

Yang had won every major vault title since taking the 2010 Asian Games gold, and the end of the winning streak brought tears to Yang’s eyes.

“My leg was hurting, but fortunately, I was able to compete to the end,” he said, choking back on tears. “I tried to do ‘Yang 2′ in my second attempt and I had the will. But my body wouldn’t allow it.”

Yang also competed under the weight of expectations from home crowds. He is one of the most visible South Korean athletes at this Asiad, with his rags-to-riches story, revealed after his Olympic gold in 2012, having further endeared him to the public.

He apologized for not winning the gold at home. Such pressure may or may not have had any bearing on the final result. For Shek, the surprise champion, playing the role of the underdog worked in his favor.

“I’ve never thought that I could win the gold medal because Yang Hak-seon is clearly a strong contender, being an Olympic gold medalist,” Shek said. “I think this sort of mindset is what helped me relax and perform my best.”