South Korea’s First Olympic Gold Medal
The 2012 London Olympic Games have kicked off an intense 17-day competition.
South Korea made its Olympic debut in London in 1948 under the name of the Republic of Korea, after liberation from Japanese colonial rule. After 64 years, South Korea has returned to London for Summer Games where athletes from around the world compete for 302 gold medals in 26 disciplines. The nation set its “10-10” goal—securing at least ten gold medals and finishing in the top 10 in the medal count for three consecutive Olympics.
The curtain of that dream was raised on July 28th, the first full day of competition in the London Olympics. Pistol shooter Jin Jong-oh came in first in the men’s 10-meter air pistol event with a total score of 688.2 points. With the victory, Jin captured South Korea’s first gold medal at the London Olympic Games and his nation took the first step toward its “10-10” goal.
Some 40 years ago, however, an Olympic gold medal was more than just a steppingstone to a dream.
Yang Jung-mo’s Gold Medal was a Miracle, Thrill
On August 3rd, 1976, a domestic newspaper carried the front-page headline, ‘A Splendid Feat to Attain the Nation’s Long-Desired Wish.’ The big black type covered almost half of the page, which inserted a photo of wrestler Yang Jung-mo raising his hands proudly on the winner’s podium.
On August 1st, 1976, South Korea’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, which Korean people had waited so long for, finally came from men’s freestyle featherweight-class wrestling at the Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal, Canada, where the 21st Summer Olympiad was being held.
Three wrestlers who passed the preliminaries were supposed to hold final league matches, and the one with the highest score would be the winner. In the final league, South Korean wrestler Yang Jung-mo faced Gene Davis of the United States and Zeveg Oidov, a legendary Mongolian wrestler who had swept two straight world championship titles. Yang overpowered Davis by pin-fall in the first match and Davis then defeated Oidov in a decision in the next match. Accordingly, the final winner would be determined by the match between Yang and Oidov.
Yang got to the final league with no penalty, and he was in an advantageous position where he could earn a gold medal unless he lost by more than six points or by pin-fall. But Yang was determined to play fair in his last game, even if he might lose the match, so he picked up the offense. Yang had an 8-6 lead over his rival in the third round.
Unfortunately, Yang suffered a counterattack at the last moment and lost 10-8 to Oidov. But it was Yang who cheered in the end, throwing his hands into the air. Yang lost to Oidov by decision in the game but fewer penalty points eventually secured Yang the gold medal.
The gold medal of the day was greatly significant. Korean marathoner Sohn Kee-chung was able to win the gold medal in the Berlin Olympics in 1936, but on the winner’s podium, he had to see the Japanese flag hoisted up as Korea was under Japanese colonial rule at the time. Yang’s gold medal eased Koreans’ painful memory of their unfortunate past. The remarkable feat was made 28 years after South Korean athletes participated in the 1948 Olympics, waving their national flag of taegeukgi for the first time. On the podium, Yang shed endless tears while the South Korean flag was raised up the pole to the tune of the national anthem. In fact, he had been in such a desperate situation that he might have given up wrestling for good.
Overcoming Crisis to Become the Nation’s First Olympic Gold Medalist
Born in Busan on February 28th, 1953, Yang started wrestling when he was a high school student. From 1970 to 1979, he was a top wrestler in the freestyle featherweight class in Korea.
Yang ranked top in the national competition to select wrestlers to participate in the 1972 Munich Olympics. But he couldn’t get on the plane to Munich because the Korea Sports Council insisted on the principle of sending athletes only with a high chance of winning a medal. Yang left the wrestling scene and wandered about for nearly a year.
The coaching staff consistently persuaded the disoriented Yang to return. He finally got himself together and started all over again. He was rather slow, as he was often called “the turtle.” To improve his speed and overcome his limitations, he would walk 8 kilometers from Taeneung Athletes’ Village to Buram(불암) Mountain and travel back, with a 15-kilogram weight jacket on.
His efforts paid off. Yang grabbed the gold medal at the 6th Asian Games in Tehran in 1974 and won the nation’s first Olympic gold medal in Montreal in 1976. He retired in 1980 when South Korea boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He has since taught students at Dong-A University to help the younger generation continue South Korea’s gold hunt at the Olympiad, which he initiated himself.