Populous Magazine 07: Seoul Sisters

From the archive: Issue 07, 2012

South Korean women totally dominate golf and archery, two sports that require precision and touch. But how exactly do they obliterate all their opponents? Is it their psyche, their culture, even possibly something to do with their national dish? Ben Cove investigates.

Like so many seminal moments in sporting history, Se Ri Pak’s victory at the 1998 US Women’s

Open came entirely by surprise. Just 20 years old and relatively unknown on the world stage, she miraculously chipped out of a water hazard on the final hole to clinch her maiden major title, and inadvertently change the tapestry of women’s golf forever.

The first exponent of the sport’s subsequent ‘Asian invasion,’ Pak, from South Korea, has since won five more major titles and in 2007 became the youngest ever inductee into the prestigious LPGA Hall Of Fame. But more than that, it’s her impact as a trailblazer for an era-defining new generation that has been most significant.

“Before Pak’s success, Koreans were emerging with tiny tip toes,” says Dong Wook Kim of the Korean Golf Association. “Her breakthrough put the nation on the map with a huge footprint that paved the way for an incredible shift of power.”

Indeed, back then, Pak was one of only three Korean women in the world’s top 100. The ensuing decade has seen an influx of her compatriots following in her footsteps – today more than a third of the planet’s elite are from South Korea.

“Beginners will spend an entire year just learning how to hold the bow correctly.
They will not be permitted to shoot arrows until their control over the bow becomes second nature.”

Didier Mieville / Director of World Archery

Just this summer, Na Yeon Choi ran away with the 2012 US Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run, Wisconsin, beating fellow Korean Amy Yang into second place. In doing so, Choi became the fourth different Korean woman to achieve the sport’s most illustrious prize in the last five years.

While Choi was wrapping up victory on one side of the Atlantic, another batch of dominant South Korean sportswomen were accomplishing an historic triumph at the London Olympics, but with bows and arrows, rather than golf clubs. South Korea has now won the team gold medal at seven Olympiads in a row. The names change and the Games change, but their arrows never falter. Their record – 13 of 14 women’s golds since 1984 – constitutes a level of dominance that could justifiably earn them the accolade of greatest Olympic team ever.

“Korea’s supremacy has been good for our sport,” says Didier Mieville, director at World Archery, the sport’s governing body.

“They’ve taken archery to new levels, and it has spurred the other nations on.”

There are many theories as to how and why this single nation of 50 million inhabitants has become such a force in these two particular precision sports. The more bizarre among them suggest the techniques of golf and archery are similar to certain cultural predispositions developed through past generations in Korea.

  • Ki Bo-bae on her way to gold at the London Olympics.

For starters, each sport requires heightened dexterity of hand, a trait Korean women are said to possess due to traditional methods of making the national dish, kimchi. They may spend many hours at a time tenderly squeezing, churning and coating hot pepper paste over cabbage leaves. They’ll then set about eating their handiwork with Korean chopsticks, the customary utensil that is short, cumbersome, made of steel and exceptionally difficult to master, thereby promoting nimbleness and sensitivity in their fingers.

“People talk about these myths, but you can’t prove whether it makes a difference to their sporting performance,” says Mieville. “If you ask the coaches – and I often do – they’ll just put it down to hard work.”

Hard work is something of an understatement. The Koreans take sporting preparation – and their quest for perfection – to unprecedented levels. “The uncanny success of Korean women in these sports is a dividend of their inexhaustible practising,” explains Professor Eui Hang Shin, a sociologist who has studied this phenomenon throughout the 21st Century. “Koreans believe that with enough disciplined practice there is nothing that any chosen subject cannot perfect.”

Sports like golf and archery are ideal for this notion as they consist of single-motion techniques, each displayed in a closed environment with limited outside influence.

This means success is not so much dependent on natural ability, but rather the repetition of an intricate mechanical formula and mental strength. And, in a culture that places an emphasis on automated excellence – and where preparation is seen as the ultimate antidote to pressure – it’s Korea’s meticulous, monotonous work ethic that ultimately reigns supreme.

“In the run- up to the London Olympics, coaches simulated noisy competitions during a baseball match in Korea so that the athletes could get used to the distractions of shooting in front of a lot fans.”

Didier Mieville / Director of World Archery

“Many other top golfers on the tour are envious of our players’ work ethic,” says the Korean Golf Association’s Dong Wook Kim.

“They are the first to get on the range in the practice days of tour events, and the last to leave.”

Trailblazing star Se Ri Pak is a pertinent example of this. Her swing is robotic, almost hypnotic in its execution, the result of years of extreme dedication. “When I was younger, I’d often practise for seven hours in the evenings,” she has admitted. “I cannot sleep if I feel I need to perfect something, so I would be on the driving range until midnight.”

Nocturnal practice sessions might baffle most aspiring teenagers, but Professor Shin insists this is the norm in Korea. “This is a society that places immense value on higher education, and because of its Confucian roots, an examination-heavy life is instilled from the get-go. Kids wake up early in the morning to begin studying before school. They get home at 5pm for dinner, go to cram school by 6pm and may not sleep at night if they feel the need to revise something from a class that day.”

  • Chella Choi competing in the USA.

Such a rigorous regime for children is all but unheard of in the West, but does begin to explain the single-mindedness and unwavering commitment that serves as a platform for Korea’s world-beating archers and golfers.

On golf’s LPGA Tour, some Koreans are likened to Iron Byron, the industry standard ball-testing machine: no emotion, no quirks, just recurring, methodical automation.

Similar principles exist in archery. “Korean coaches promote the most intricate and detailed of learning processes,” explains Mieville. “For example, beginners will spend an entire year just learning how to hold the bow correctly. They will not be permitted to shoot arrows until their control over the bow becomes second nature. It’s a long, arduous process, but it obviously works. Once they’re at the elite level, the thorough training regime only continues. In the run-up to the London Olympics, coaches simulated noisy competitions during a baseball match in Korea so that the athletes could get used to the distractions of shooting in front of a lot fans.”

There are other factors, according to Professor Shin, who cites the prevalence of a strong father-daughter relationship in many top female athletes. “Like in the case of [American] tennis’ Williams sisters, the influence of Korean fathers is a determinant.

In Korea a more stable and long-standing family structure means stronger relationships are harnessed. Parents are obeyed.”

  • So Yeon Ryu.

As if to illustrate this point, Pak again serves as a prototype. In regard to movies and boyfriends, her father once said to her: “That can come later. Ten years from now, maybe. Right now it’s golf practice.”

In reality, there’s no doubt that an amalgamation of factors has caused these most unexpected, and all-conquering, of Asian invasions. It remains to be seen whether or not South Korea’s current dominance will subside over time, as many of their successful coaches migrate to other parts of the world, each preaching the worth of exhaustive training principles.

But with a combination of ingrained diligence, faultless execution – and perhaps even a helping hand from their ancient culinary traditions – these dextrous Korean women are not about to relinquish their global sporting strongholds any day soon.

Populous is designing the main stadium for the Incheon 2014 Asian Games in South Korea.

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