At an open house event at the National Training Center in northern Seoul, the country's largest training ground for Olympic athletes, 42 athletes in 11 different sports spoke in one voice: that they will put forth their best efforts.
London hosted the 1948 Summer Olympics, where weightlifter Kim Sung-jip won South Korea’s first Olympic medal. And 64 years later, Jang Mi-ran, a star weightlifter of the current generation, said she looked forward to returning to the historic ground for their sport.
“I am so proud that our country's first-ever medal came from weightlifting,” said Jang Mi-ran, the reigning Olympic champion in women’s over-75-kilogram division. Jang has battled injuries in recent years and has since seen her world records in snatch and total weight broken by younger Russian and Chinese lifters.
“Compared to Beijing, I am going through more difficult times,” Jang said. “I am not going to say I will win a medal, but I'd like to say I will do my best.”
|Korean badminton star Lee Yong-dae (center) answers a question at a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday, also attended by other national athletes and coaches, to mark the 30 day point before the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)|
South Korea has come a long way since the 1948 Olympics. It has ranked inside the top-10 in gold medal counts in five of the past six Summer Games, dating back to the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
This time, the stated goal is fixated on the numeral 10. South Korea is eyeing 10 gold medals and a top-10 ranking in the medal standings.
Jang admitted some of her male weightlifting teammates and athletes in other sports are likely closer to a gold medal than she is, and said more attention should be paid to them. Shuttler Lee Yong-dae may be one of them.
Lee won the mixed doubles gold in Beijing, but it was the men’s doubles that he and his partner Jung Jae-sung had been favored to win in the first place. The duo instead crashed out in the first round, and Lee said the disappointment lingered.
“I know expectations were high for men's doubles in Beijing, and we’ve been trying to analyze what went wrong there,” the 23-year-old said. “We've been putting together some good results in the buildup to London, and I think we can build on that experience to finally win the men’s doubles title.”
Lee is one of the few South Korean athletes gunning for back-to-back Olympic gold. For others, London will be an opportunity for redemption.
In women's foil fencing in Beijing, Nam Hyun-hee lost to Valentina Vezzali of Italy by one point in the final. But getting her first Olympic medal out of the way has actually lessened any pressure on her ahead of London, Nam said.
“All I need is more confidence that I can win the gold,” the 30-year-old said. “I will try to improve over the next 30 days and the result will come.”
Judokas Wang Ki-chun and Kim Jae-bum also settled for silver in Beijing in the men’s under-73kg and under-81kg divisions, respectively. They are currently ranked No. 1 in their weight classes, and with improved performances come heightened expectations.
But Wang said he doesn't feel any extra burden.
“I know the expectations are there, but I am not feeling any pressure,” he said. “I believe I’ve worked hard enough to win the gold this time. So you can all count on me.”
When it comes to pressure, it's a different story for Yang Hak-seon, a 19-year-old male gymnast so technically advanced that the International Gymnastics Federation recently named a new move in vault after him.
In his first Olympics, Yang, the defending world champion in vault, is looking to become the first South Korean to win an Olympic gold in gymnastics.
“As we get closer to the Olympics, I feel the pressure mounting a bit,” he said. “But I am just trying to stay focused on my training. My biggest rival is really myself. I know if I can keep training the way I have, I can win the gold medal.”
Older athletes will look at the London Games as their last hurrah. Greco-Roman wrestler Jung Ji-hyun, competing in the men’s 60㎏ division, won the gold at the 2004 Athens Games. But in Beijing, he was part of the wrestling delegation that was shut out of gold for the first time in 32 years.
“This will be my third Olympics and also the last,” the 28-year-old said. “I want the gold this year really badly.”
Kim Kyung-ah, the 35-year-old female table tennis player, said she also wants to go out on a high note.
“My confidence is running high,” she said. “I'd like to have a good finish. I want to show the power of a veteran.”