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Volleyball news, good and bad, prominent in annual rankings of S. Korean sports stories

Summer Olympics 10:35 December 23, 2021

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 23 (Yonhap) -- No South Korean sport went through the kind of roller-coaster ride that volleyball did in 2021. The sport's highest of highs and the lowest of lows dominated the news cycle and also the annual rankings of the top 10 sports stories released by Yonhap News Agency on Thursday.

A series of off-court scandals in the sport ranked No. 1 in Yonhap's survey of 51 South Korean newspapers and broadcasters, with 315 points.

A first-place vote was worth 10 points, with a second-place vote worth nine points, and so forth. The volleyball story received 11 first-place votes.

In this file photo from Oct. 16, 2021, volleyball-playing twins Lee Jae-yeong (L) and Lee Da-yeong head to the departure gate at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, en route to joining a team in Greece. The Lees were released from their South Korean club, Heungkuk Life Pink Spiders, in June 2021 while facing bullying allegations. (Yonhap)

In February, bullying allegations surfaced against the popular twin sisters on the Heungkuk Life Pink Spiders in the women's V-League, Lee Jae-yeong and Lee Da-yeong. Their former elementary and middle school teammates accused them of physical and verbal abuse, which led to the suspension for the Lees. The sisters moved to the Greek league.

In September, prior to the start of the 2021-2022 season, Jung Ji-seok of the Korean Air Jumbos, the reigning men's league MVP, faced a police investigation for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Jung reached a settlement with the woman, who agreed to drop her charges, and Jung returned to action on Dec. 4 -- much to the chagrin of volleyball fans.

Just two months later, another scandal broke out on the women's side. IBK Altos' captain Cho Song-hwa walked out on the team in the middle of the season, apparently displeased with head coach Seo Nam-won. Seo's top assistant, Kim Sanee, also went AWOL, though she rejoined the team later.

IBK's front office somehow fired Seo and made Kim the interim head coach. Under mounting pressure from across the league, Kim stepped down after just three games.

In this file photo from July 30, 2021, An San of South Korea holds up her gold medal from the women's individual archery event at the Tokyo Olympics at Yumenoshima Park Archery Field in Tokyo. (Yonhap)

The team eventually terminated Cho's contract and made her a free agent. She apologized to her teammates, team officials and fans. But the saga is far from over, with Cho having threatened legal action against the team.

A much more celebratory story came in at No. 2.

This was a banner year for South Korean archery, as the country picked up four out of five gold medals up for grabs at the Tokyo Olympics. An San captured three gold medals -- the first-ever Olympic gold awarded in the mixed team event, plus the women's team and the women's individual titles. The 20-year-old became South Korea's first triple gold medalist at a Summer Olympics.

Also at the Tokyo Olympics, the South Korean women's volleyball team went on a memorable run to the semifinals, a feat that ranked No. 3 on this year-end list.

In this file photo from Aug. 4, 2021, members of the South Korean women's volleyball team celebrate their victory over Turkey in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympic women's volleyball tournament at Ariake Arena in Tokyo. (Yonhap)

Led by captain Kim Yeon-koung, South Korea rallied past the host Japan for a five-set thriller in the preliminary round to secure a knockout berth. The 13th-ranked South Korea then stunned world No. 4 Turkey in the quarterfinals. Though South Korea lost in the semifinals and then in the bronze medal match, the pesky and resilient team won over hearts of many fans at home.

Elsewhere at the Olympics, teenagers shot to instant stardom for South Korea, and their fearless performances came in at No. 4.

Two stood out in particular: the 17-year-old archer Kim Je-deok grabbed gold medals in the men's team event and the mixed team event, while the 18-year-old freestyle swimmer Hwang Sun-woo emerged as the next big thing and did everything but win a medal.

In the 100m freestyle, Hwang set an Asian record with 47.56 seconds in the semifinals and finished fifth in the final. He was the first Asian swimmer in 65 years to reach an Olympic final for the 100m freestyle.

Earlier in the 200m freestyle, Hwang set a South Korean record with 1:44.62 in the heats. He was on a world-record pace through the halfway point in the final and was in the lead with 50m to go before ending up in seventh place.

In this file photo from July 28, 2021, Hwang Sun-woo of South Korea checks his time after the men's 100m freestyle semifinals at Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the Tokyo Olympics. (Yonhap)

Tying for fourth place on the news list was the KT Wiz's first-ever Korean Series championship in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). The Wiz, who joined the league as an expansion team in 2015, made the postseason for the first time in 2020, and then reached the pinnacle this year by capturing their first title with a four-game sweep of the Doosan Bears.

The KBO as a whole, however, had a season it would rather forget. Players' off-field trouble and the national team's disappointing showing at the Tokyo Olympics ranked sixth on the top 10 list.

Four veterans of the NC Dinos each received 72-game suspension from the league for violating COVID-19 protocols. They held a drinking party with six people present at a Seoul hotel room during a road trip in July, when social gatherings in the capital city were restricted to four people. Players from the Kiwoom Heroes and the Hanwha Eagles also served internal bans for similar infractions.

Weeks after these incidents, the national baseball team, built entirely with KBO players, finished in fourth place out of six countries at the Tokyo Olympics with a 3-4 record.

In this file photo from Nov. 18, 2021, members of the KT Wiz celebrate winning the Korean Series after defeating the Doosan Bears 8-4 in Game 4 at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

It only added insult to injury for the KBO. The pandemic kept fans out of stadiums for most of the season, and fans feeling disenchanted with a series of off-field issues stopped tuning into games.

Football fans, on the other hand, had a lot more to cheer about in 2021. Tottenham Hotspur's South Korean star Son Heung-min established new career highs with 17 goals in the Premier League and 22 goals in all competitions during the 2020-2021 season -- a feat that ranked seventh on the top 10 list.

While building up for the Beijing Winter Olympics, the national short track speed skating team was dealt an unexpected blow in October. Through leaked text messages, two-time Olympic gold medalist Shim Suk-hee faced race-fixing charges and also came under fire for disparaging her teammates and coaches with expletives during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. This bit of controversy was eighth on the news list.

Shim, suspected of pushing off a teammate, Choi Min-jeong, during the women's 1,000m final at PyeongChang 2018, was let off the hook on those charges. However, Shim still got a two-month ban Tuesday for denigrating the rest of the 2018 Olympic team. The decision will rule her out of Beijing unless she can get it reduced via a court injunction or an appeal with the Korea Sport & Olympic Committee.

In this AFP photo, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates his goal against Liverpool during the clubs' Premier League match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on Dec. 19, 2021. (Yonhap)

In one of the few feel-good stories on this list, LPGA Tour star Ko Jin-young checked in at No. 9 after authoring a memorable season.

She won five tournaments en route to winning the Player of the Year honor for the second time in three seasons. Ko also became the first South Korean to claim three straight LPGA money titles.

Four of Ko's five wins came after the Tokyo Olympics, where she tied for ninth place despite being labeled a gold medal contender. Ko used that missed opportunity as fuel for her second-half charge.

Ko's disappointing performance in Tokyo was one of several for South Korea across the Olympics, which rounded out the top 10 on the news list.

South Korea finished in 16th place on the medal table with six gold, four silver and 10 bronze medals. South Korea had been in the top 10 in the medal race at each of the four previous Summer Games. The 20 total medals represented South Korea's lowest output since it grabbed 19 medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

In this Getty Images file photo from Nov. 21, 2021, Ko Jin-young of South Korea poses with the LPGA Player of the Year trophy after winning the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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