Former Olympic-winning marathoner Hwang Young-cho is still excited when he talks about his gold medal run at the 1992 Summer Olympics Games in Barcelona, Spain.
Hwang's victory washed out South Koreans' painful memory that dates back to 1936. At the Berlin Olympics, the late Sohn Kee-chung took gold in marathon but couldn't celebrate his victory because he had to wear the Japanese flag as Korea was under Japan's colonization.
"Sohn had said he wanted to see a Korean runner celebrating with the Olympic gold medal before he dies," Hwang said to Yonhap News Agency on Saturday. "It was my proudest moment when I resolved his sorrow."
The present picture in South Korean marathon isn't nearly as glorious. When talking about today's situation for South Korean marathon, Hwang's face turns grim. The 45-year-old, who now coaches the Korea Sports Promotion Foundation marathon team, laments that the country's marathon has taken more than a few steps back.
"In the 1990s, South Korea had two or three world class marathoners and had some runners who could finish inside 2 hours,
10 minutes," Hwang said. "But South Korean marathon has fallen behind on the international stage, which is a cruel reality."
After Sohn won the 1936 Summer Games with a then world record of 2:29.13, also becoming the first Asian runner to win the quadrennial event, South Korea remained a marathon powerhouse till the 1950s. After setbacks in the ensuing decades, South Korea returned to international prominence in style with marathoners like Hwang and Lee Bong-ju, the silver medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games and the 2001 Boston Marathon champion.
Over the last decade, however, South Korea marathon has been relegated to the back seats in international races.
Since Jeong Jin-hyeok clocked 2:09.28 in 2011, getting inside of 2 hours and 10 minutes has become a difficult task for South Korean long-distance runners. Last year, Noh Si-wan had the best time among South Koreans at 2:12.51. The South Korean men's marathon record is still 2:07.20, set by Lee at the 2000 Tokyo Marathon.
While South Koreans have struggled to challenge their national mark, men's marathon in the rest of the world has progressed, led by African runners. In 2014, Dennis Kimetto of Kenya set a world record time of 2:02.57 at the Berlin Marathon. Last year, there were three finishes under 2 hours and 4 minutes, and three marathoners have already finished inside that time in 2016.
Hwang said that the reason behind South Korea's protracted slump is the lack of "desperation" in its runners.
"Back in the days when I was competing, I trained with desperation, hoping to resolve sorrow for Sohn and the nation,"
Hwang said. "But after I won the Olympic gold medal, the atmosphere changed."
Hwang, also the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Game gold medalist, said that the shallower pool of homegrown marathon talent has worsened the situation. He claimed that with the current infrastructure, it will be difficult to revive the glories of the past.
"There are no big financial rewards in marathon even if you succeed," he said. "Who would choose such a demanding sport (with no major compensation)?"
In a bid to boost the country's competitiveness in marathon, the Korean Association of Athletics Federations recently recommended the naturalization of Kenya-born runner Wilson Loyanae Erupe to the Korean Olympic Committee. But the national Olympic body withheld its decision.
Hwang wasn't pleased about the prospect of Erupe, who has a doping history, being granted South Korean citizenship.
"Pursuing foreign marathoners' naturalization will not help the country in the long term," he said.
Hwang said that local runners should also wake up and improve their abilities. The former South Korea marathon team head coach said some athletes just think about winning races but not improving their personal records.
"Not only runners, but all people in the South Korean sports community should think about just how desperate our runners were in the past," he said. (Yonhap)