(ATTN: ADDS KBO's decision in 3rd to last para; photo)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 12 (Yonhap) -- There was such a striking contrast.
South Korean men's football team and baseball team both won gold medals at the 18th Asian Games in Indonesia on Sept. 1. But you couldn't tell it by the way they were received by fans, both during their run to the top and in the afterglow of their victories.
The football team was a much-celebrated champion, hailed for beating longtime archrivals Japan for the continental honors. But the baseball team was an unpopular group of winners, despite also defeating Japan for the gold medal.
These athletes all returned home on Sept. 3. The football team, which arrived at Incheon International Airport around 8 a.m., received a hero's welcome from hundreds of fans, and the players were all wearing gold medals around their necks -- some of them cradling their precious prizes as they left the airport.
About an hour later at an adjacent terminal at the same airport, the baseball players were greeted by about a hundred fans, and their welcome was far more lukewarm. Conspicuously absent from their necks were gold medals.
The warm reception the people afforded the football team, juxtaposed with their collective cold shoulders to the baseball team, is an illustration of how the public's expectations for national team athletes have changed.
It's no longer good enough for athletes to simply bring home gold medals. Fans now put significant weight on how those medals are won. The end doesn't always justify the means.
The military exemptions involving several players on both teams take up an important part of the narrative. In South Korea, able-bodied men must serve about two years -- depending on the branch of service -- in the armed forces. But athletes who win an Asian Games gold medal or an Olympic medal of any color earn exemptions from that duty. Such athletes only have to undergo four weeks of basic training.
For many, it's not that military exemption itself is bad. It's more about how some undeserving players were put in a place where they could enjoy such benefits.
Two principal figures here are Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League and Oh Ji-hwan of the LG Twins in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). They were two of the most talked-about South Korean athletes heading into the Asian Games and for different reasons.
Like many other male athletes, Son was in pursuit of a military service exemption. Having signed a new five-year deal with the Spurs in July, Son could benefit from a club career uninterrupted by two or so years in the South Korean armed forces.
At 26, Son was one of three overage players for South Korea in the Asian Games' under-23 football tournament. In a way, Son, South Korea's most gifted offensive player today, was a hired gun. And head coach Kim Hak-bum also named Son his captain.
And by all accounts, Son delivered the goods beyond what the stat sheets showed. Son only scored once, but Kim lauded his maturity and leadership skills on and off the field. The Spurs fans in South Korea and around the world rejoiced over the victory by the player they affectionately call "Sonny."
"I'm really happy for him," said a 36-year-old football fan Jeong Seung-chul, expressing the sentiment certain to be echoed by many others. "He's done so much for our country, and he's made us really proud. Now he can go on playing without worrying about the military service. I think he really earned that."
Oh, too, was seeking his military service exemption but disgruntled fans saw him as a selfish athlete who only used an opportunity to represent the country for his personal agenda.
Oh could have joined several other KBO pros and signed up for the military club in the second-tier Futures League, Sangmu, or the National Police Agency team in the same league in 2017.
Only players under 27 can apply for either team, and Oh, who turned 28 earlier this year, decided to take his chance with the national team. He was rolling the dice that he'd perform well enough in 2018 to receive Asian Games consideration.
That already turned off more than a few in the baseball community. Because of a considerable talent gap between South Korea and the rest of the field, the Asian Games baseball tournaments have come to be seen as an easy ticket for players to take care of their military exemptions. Despite its rich history in professional baseball, Japan has been sending amateurs to the Asian Games for years. Chinese Taipei used to field professionals but only had about a handful of pros were available this year because of injuries. And South Korea fans felt that Oh was trying to exploit the situation and that the national team coaching staff was only happy to oblige.
Most of the KBO's top stars received their exemptions at past Asiads. Current and future Major League Baseball (MLB) players like Park Chan-ho, Kim Byung-hyun and Choo Shin-soo all got their tickets out of the military at these continental events.
And it has now become impossible to field a competitive team only with players who need exemptions. Fans now began clamoring for the truly best national team, instead of one that included a few token names based on their military status.
For the 2018 Asiad, Oh was exactly that type of player, someone who wouldn't have made the national team if not for his need to get the military exemption.
Before making his final roster selection on June 11, national team manager Sun Dong-yol insisted he'd go with versatile players for backup spots, ones that could handle multiple positions on the field and come in at any situation for pinch-hit duties.
But Oh is an antithesis of that. He can only play shortstop -- and not very well at that. Oh is a career .263 hitter who's never hit for .300 in any of his 10 KBO seasons, and he's had just one 20-homer season. In other words, Oh isn't the type of hitter you'd rely on to deliver a key home run in a late-inning situation.
According to sources close to Sun, the manager was adamant that he wouldn't pick Oh on the eve of the announcement. It's not clear what led to Sun's sudden change of heart.
The manager took considerable heat for picking Oh and for failing to offer a proper explanation for the decision. Cynical fans started saying they wanted to see Sun's team fail and come home with a silver medal.
Oh was batting right at .300 at the time of his selection, but he entered the Asian Games batting .277.
Oh became a target of vitriolic cyberattacks well before the start of the Asian Games and remained so throughout the event. Sun could have lifted some pressure off Oh and perhaps the rest of the team on Aug. 13, when he replaced four injured and slumping players. But Sun kept Oh onboard, missing his opportunity to remove the lightning rod for criticism for the team.
In South Korea's six games in Jakarta, Oh made a grand total of three plate appearances. He batted 1-for-2 with a walk and two runs scored off the bench. He had a pinch-running appearance in the gold medal game.
"I think there should be something honorable about representing the country in any sport," said 33-year-old baseball fan Lee Sang-su. "But Oh Ji-hwan made it about himself. He could have started his military service last year. But he knew he could win the gold medal in the Asian Games as long as he just got on the team. And I don't understand why he was even picked in the first place."
When South Korea shockingly lost to a Chinese Taipei team of amateurs 2-1 in the opening game, it only gave critics more ammo. They said karma was working against the baseball team, and it was bound to miss out on gold. And when South Korea bounced back and went on to win gold, the victory wasn't celebrated with the kind of fervor that accompanied the football team's gold medal.
That Son Heung-min is a far more accomplished star in football than Oh Ji-hwan is in baseball may also have made a difference. No coach in his right mind would have left Son off the team. Kim Hak-bum would have taken a beating if he hadn't done whatever it took to get Son on the plane bound for Indonesia. If anyone deserved to be on the team, it was Son.
But as backup infielders go, Oh was more than replaceable. There are more reliable options in middle infield. In a good year, Oh would have been on the bubble at best. And the 2018 season, in which Oh is leading the KBO in errors and strikeouts, hasn't been a good one.
"I don't think you can even compare the two players, in terms of their impact on their teams," said Park Seok-hyun, a 27-year-old sports fan who watched the gold medal games for both baseball and football. "Son Heung-min was the captain. He's the face of South Korean football. Oh Ji-hwan hasn't done anything."
The thrilling finish to football's gold medal match and the anticlimactic end to baseball's final at the Asian Games, held only hours apart from one another, appeared to have further fueled fans' emotions about these national teams.
The men's football final went into extra time with South Korea and Japan deadlocked at 0-0. Young guns Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan each scored in extra time to stake South Korea to a 2-0 lead, and South Korea survived a late goal by Ayase Ueda to close out Japan 2-1. What followed was a display of unbridled joy from the winners, and Son, in particular, was a picture of sheer relief and exhilaration.
This collection of one superstar and a bunch of under-23 prospects overachieved in a tournament where anything could have happened.
In baseball, South Korea shut out Japan 3-0 for gold. Starter Yang Hyeon-jong threw six shutout innings while holding the opponents to one hit, and two relievers combined for three perfect innings. But South Korea itself only managed four hits, and there was little sense of drama at any point during the game. South Korea scored twice in the bottom of the first, and Park Byung-ho launched a solo home run in the bottom third for a bit more breathing room. But South Korea had just one hit the rest of the way.
This squad of KBO All-Stars and former MLB players underachieved in a tournament that they were supposed to win.
The celebration after the ho-hum baseball victory was decidedly muted. Manager Sun and his players had been speaking all along about the weight of expectations they were dealing with -- the pressure not just to win but to bulldoze the competition -- and they sang the same tune in the post-victory press conference. Sun, who was dour and standoffish throughout the tournament, spoke like the manager of an underdog.
"Even after the first loss, I had faith in my players. I knew they had more than what it takes to pull through," Sun said defiantly. "We all felt the pressure to win, not just myself as manager but the players as well. Because of that pressure, the players made some miscues that they normally wouldn't make. But I felt they would be able to shake it all off in the end."
Mindful of criticism against the national team throughout the Asian Games, the KBO said on Sept. 5, four days after the gold medal-clinching win, that it will not have a traditional midseason break during the next Asian Games in 2022, meaning the KBO's top stars won't be available for the competition.
The KBO, which governs professional baseball, also announced that it'll work closely with the Korea Baseball Softball Association (KBSA), which oversees amateur baseball, to revise the national team selection rules and process. With these changes, the future national team will include at least some amateurs and, without the Asian Games break, the KBO clubs will likely only send young, fringe players whose absences wouldn't have much bearing on the pennant race.
On Wednesday, KBO Commissioner Chung Un-chan announced the formation of a new cooperative body in conjunction with the KBSA, tentatively named the KBO-KBSA Council for the Future of Korean Baseball. Chung said he'd like to see a balance between pros and amateurs on future national teams, saying, "Amateur baseball is a reservoir of talent for professional baseball."
Count Kang Yang-uk, a student majoring in international sports and leisure at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, among those who'd like to see amateurs in action. In an email to Yonhap News Agency, Kang said the Asiad playing field tilted in favor of South Korea tainted the legacy of the gold medal in Jakarta.
"For amateur players, competing in the Asian Games will be their chance to prove themselves worthy," Kang said. "It will allow up-and-coming athletes in South Korea to face a higher level of competition from around Asia. The games will also be much more entertaining, and it will make the gold medal worthier."
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