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Ascendant high jumper, swimmer among athletes forced to put Asiad dreams on hold

In this AFP photo, Woo Sang-hyeok of South Korea (C) celebrates after winning gold in the men's high jump at the World Athletics Indoor Championships at Stark Arena in Belgrade on March 20, 2022. (AFP)
In this AFP photo, Woo Sang-hyeok of South Korea (C) celebrates after winning gold in the men's high jump at the World Athletics Indoor Championships at Stark Arena in Belgrade on March 20, 2022. (AFP)

South Korean high jumper Woo Sang-hyeok is enjoying the best stretch of his career. He captured his first world indoor title in March by clearing 2.34 meters. Woo also rose to the top of the 2022 outdoor season rankings by jumping 2.32 meters at a South Korean event last Wednesday.

These performances came on the heels of Woo's fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics last summer. It was the highest placement by a South Korean track and field athlete at any Olympics.

Woo appeared to be peaking just in time for the 19th Asian Games, originally scheduled for Sept. 10-25 in Hangzhou, China. However, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) announced last Friday it had decided to postpone the continental event indefinitely, citing COVID-19 concerns. New dates for the Asian Games will be determined later.

Woo, 26, has not yet won an Asian Games gold, having finished 10th in his debut in 2014 and then having taken silver in 2018. Given his recent form, Woo looked poised to become the first South Korean high jumper since Lee Jin-taek in 2002 to top the Asian Games podium.

However, Woo now has to wait at least another year for his possible coronation as the new Asiad king.

Nothing is guaranteed in sports. Woo's string of impressive jumps may not continue in 2023, when the Asian Games will likely be held. An extra year of training and competing may also expose athletes to injury risks.

Woo is far from being the only South Korean medal hopeful who will have to deal with uncertainty surrounding the Asian Games. Take swimmer Hwang Sun-woo, for instance.

Still a few days from his 19th birthday, Hwang is already one of the top freestyle swimmers in Asia. Hwang first announced his arrival at the Tokyo Olympics, where he set an Asian record in the 100m freestyle semifinals and pushed for a stunning medal before losing steam in the 200m freestyle final.

At the national team trials held in late March, Hwang handily won the 100m and 200m freestyle finals. Hwang posted competitive times that would have put him among the world leaders, if the meet had been recognized by FINA, the world swimming governing body.

On April 20, the Korea Swimming Federation sent Hwang and other top qualifiers from the trials to Australia for a special six-week training camp. While Down Under, the South Korean swimmers will be working with Ian Pope, the former Australian Olympic swimming coach who has trained Olympic champions Grant Hackett and Michael Klim. Pope has coached his swimmers to 11 world records.

The camp was arranged to help Hwang prepare for his Asian Games debut, which has been put on hold until further notice.

Hwang was one of hundreds of South Korean athletes to have qualified for the Asian Games in their respective sports. However, they may all have to return to square one and go through qualifying phases all over again.

An official with the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee (KSOC) hinted that, should Asian Games be rescheduled for 2023, then national team trials may have to be held again "to ensure we take the top-performing athletes to the Asian Games next year, rather than this year."

At least Hwang, without a peer in his main events in the country, is all but assured of a spot in the Asian Games even if he has to qualify again. It will be a much different story in archery, where the depth of talent is such that those who win an Olympic medal one year often miss out on the national team qualification the next year.

An San, a triple gold medalist from the Tokyo Olympics last summer, finished third in the Asian Games trials last month to barely make the team. Only the top four earned their spots on the Asian Games team. Jang Min-hee, An's teammate in Tokyo and the 2021 world individual champion, didn't qualify.

Scheduling national team trials will present its own challenges. The KSOC must make sure those trials don't overlap with international qualifying events for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics.

The Hangzhou Asian Games have become the latest victim in the sporting world to the COVID-19 pandemic. The collateral damage to South Korean athletes has been resultant uncertainty. (Yonhap)

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