South Korean fencers train at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, 90 kilometers south of Seoul, on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
JINCHEON -- Fencing at the Olympic Games has long been the domain of European countries, but pesky and scrappy underdogs from South Korea have come on strong of late.
South Korea's major breakthrough came at the 2012 London Olympics, where it captured two gold, one silver and three bronze medals, trailing only Italy in both the gold medal and the total medal tallies. Medals came from all three disciplines, too, with a silver and a bronze in epee, two bronze medals in foil and two gold medals in sabre. South Korea added a gold and a bronze four years later in Rio de Janeiro.
Kim Jung-hwan was on the gold medal-winning men's sabre team in 2012. He picked up an individual bronze in Rio, and the 37-year-old will be going for more Olympic glory in Tokyo this summer.
With the South Korean men's sabre team ranked No. 1 in the world and Kim's teammate, Oh Sang-uk, perched atop the individual rankings, the nation will turn its hopeful eyes to the masked swordsmen for medals.
South Korea's stated goal is to win seven gold medals overall in Tokyo. Can at least two of them come from fencing?
Kim believes it can be done.
"We feel the weight of expectations, but since the 2012 London Olympics, we've grown into a fencing powerhouse," Kim told reporters Wednesday during an open practice at the Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, 90 kilometers south of Seoul. "I believe we're capable (of winning two gold medals)."
As great as it would be to win another medal for himself, Kim said his primary focus is on the team title.
"Our sabre team has been world No. 1 for a while now," Kim said. "We want to grab the gold medal, as expected, and give our people something to cheer about."
The national fencing team has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. In March last year, three members of the women's epee team tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from a competition in Budapest. Then last month, Oh also tested positive for the virus, after he, too, had competed in an event in the Hungarian capital. Oh was hospitalized for about a month and was released earlier this week.
"We all have our fingers crossed that all of our hard work won't be for naught because of COVID-19," Kim said. "We don't get to do much outside our training, and it has been exhausting, mentally and physically. But the Olympic Games are really important, and we just have to endure this for another 100 days."
Kim said his experience at the past two Olympic Games has taught him that skills alone won't bring medals.
"A lot of things have to go your way, and you have to overcome pressure and new surroundings," Kim said. "As the oldest guy on the team, I'll try to be the stabilizing force for my teammates." (Yonhap)