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Korea exceeds gold medal target with room to spare in London

LONDON  -- After the opening weekend of the London Olympics in late July, it seemed for a moment that Korea would have more difficulty meeting its gold medal target than anticipated.

But the country's athletes saw to it that the mission, which was to win at least 10 gold medals for a top-10 finish in the medal table, would be accomplished -- with relative ease, it turned out.

At this year's Summer Olympics, which drew to a close Sunday, Korea finished in fifth place with 13 gold medals, tying its record for most titles at a single Olympics. The athletes took out the suspense with several days left in competition, as pistol shooter Jin Jong-oh picked up gold No. 10 with a week to go and male artistic gymnast Yang Hak-seon took the vault title for the 11th gold two days later.

London represented a historic ground for Korea. The country's first Summer Olympics under its own flag was the 1948 London Games. It won a bronze medal each from men's weightlifting and boxing. In the ensuing decades, Korea has developed into a major economy and also a consistent top-10 threat in Summer Olympic medal standings.

Lee Kee-heung, chief of the Korean delegation at these Olympics, said the athletes this year did their forefathers proud with their performances.

"At this year's Olympics, we wanted to pay tribute to our predecessors who participated in the 1948 London Olympics," Lee said. "We also had a significant opportunity to display our improved profile. We're honored to have exceeded our goal and given great pleasure to people back home."

But things didn't look so promising at the start for Korea. Despite rosy predictions of up to four gold medals in the opening days, Jin was the only gold medal winner in 10-meter air pistol on July 28. Swimmer Park Tae-hwan took silver in the 400m freestyle the same day, coming just shy of defending his Olympic gold. He was initially disqualified from the race for a false start, but was reinstated hours later.

The favored men's archery team fell to the U.S. in the semis and got the bronze. Judoka Wang Ki-chun, ranked No. 1 in men's under-73 kg, missed the podium.

A pair of unexpected winners got the ball rolling at the turn of the month. On Aug. 1, Kim Ji-yeon in women's sabre fencing and Song Dae-nam in men's judo were among three gold medalists, joined by female pistol shooter and world record holder Kim Jang-mi.

Archers picked things up from there. Ki Bo-bae won the women's individual gold after helping the country to the team title earlier. Oh Jin-hyek then became the first Korean male archer to win an individual gold.

Jin, who won Korea's first gold in London, was on target for the 10th gold as well. Then, it was Yang Hak-seon, with the first-ever gymnastics gold for Korea in men's vault, followed by Greco-Roman wrestler Kim Hyeon-woo, who fought his way through a battered right eye swollen shut during the gold medal bout.

Hwang Kyung-seon won her second straight Olympic gold in women's under-67 kg taekwondo for No. 13 two days before the closing ceremony.

Gold medals came from seven different sports. Archery and shooting were tied with three apiece, followed by two each from judo and fencing.

The men's football team didn't win gold, but still got plenty of attention by beating regional rival Japan for the bronze. It was Korea's first Olympic football medal in its ninth try.

A handful of other athletes, however, returned home wondering what might have been.

Swimming star Park left London with two silver medals, first in 400m freestyle and then in 200m freestyle. The 22-year-old never fully admitted it, but the flip-flop on the disqualification ruling before the 400m race may have taken too large of a mental toll.

Wang in men's judo injured his right elbow in the second round and then his left elbow during the semifinal bout. The loss there relegated him to the bronze medal contest, but unable to use either arm with any force, Wang lost that match, too.

Foil fencer Nam Hyun-hee blew big leads in both her semifinal and bronze medal bouts in the individual event. The latter defeat came against Valentina Vezzali of Italy, the same fencer who beat the Korean for gold in Beijing.

Badminton earned just one bronze, while four female doubles players got disqualified for their role in match-throwing attempts.

(Yonhap News)

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