How South Korea became Olympic table tennis champions – a lesson for Asian youths

127 youth sports leaders were in Singapore from 8-16 March to participate in the first STEP Southeast Asia Youth Sports Leaders Camp

21 Mar 2019

By Justin Kor

The Galatsi Olympic Hall, Athens, 2004. It is the final of the men’s single table tennis competition at the Olympics, and Ryu Seung Min can see the finish line.

He is tantalisingly close – all he needs is just one more point. Win it, and he strikes gold. This is a moment that the 22-year-old has been training for since the age of eight.

His eyes are fixated on his opponent, Wang Hao of China. The odds had been against him before the match – China had already swept every table tennis gold in Athens. Ryu bends his knees, ready to spring, as his fingers hold the bat in his signature pen-grip.

Wang serves, and he returns. He fends off another drive by the Chinese. This second return causes his opponent to reach far to his left for the ball, leaving an opening on the right.

It is the moment that Ryu has been waiting for. His right arm is already sore from the exhausting rallies that he has exchanged with Wang over five arduous sets. But there is just enough energy for one last vicious smash.

As the ball comes towards him, he explodes. Twisting his torso to generate maximum power, he swings his arm outwards in a vicious whip like motion. He expends so much force that his right leg leaves the ground. The technique is perfect as paddle strikes ball with both venom and accuracy.

It is a piledriver of a shot that a hapless and unbalanced Wang tries to reach for, but inevitably fails.

In a flurry of just five seconds, it is over – the South Korean is the new Olympic champion. The discipline gives way to unbridled joy, as he lets out a guttural roar.

To this day, Ryu is the last non-Chinese male paddler to have won an Olympic gold. But while most know him as the athlete who has reached the pinnacle of sporting success, only a few are aware of the arduous journey that took him there.

His achievement was borne from 15 years of training, with the majority of it being spent at the Korea National Training Centre, which housed the country’s national athletes. There, for 10 hours a day, he engaged in seemingly endless and mundane drills to hone his skills.


Reliving the moment

Olympic champion Ryu Seungmin shared the values which helped him through his sporting journey

In an auditorium at Temasek Polytechnic, he shares this little-known aspect of his life in a talk with 127 participants of the inaugural STEP Southeast Asia Youth Sports Leaders Camp – a nine-day programme that aims to inculcate leadership skills and forge friendships among youths across the region.

Sixteen Asian countries, ranging from Japan to Laos, have sent participants. The camp is jointly organised by Sport Singapore, Singapore Olympic Foundation and Temasek Foundation International.

Speaking to them, Ryu says: “It was terrible, I wanted to give up every day. But I always reminded myself: ‘if you want to achieve something, you have to always put in the effort.’”

He also encourages participants to step out of their own comfort zone if they wanted to achieve success.

His talk leaves an impact. “It inspired us. He taught me that whatever you do in life, you should put in 100 per cent effort, even though it may be time consuming and takes a lot of sacrifices,” says Singaporean badminton player Lim Shun Wei.


Pushing their limits

Participants slept on the Marina Bay Floating Platform under the stars on a campfire night

Over the nine days, their mettle is also put to the test, through a number of rigorous activities that look to shape their own tenacity and resilience.

These includes a gruelling three-day, two-night cycling expedition around Singapore, a daunting high element course, and an exhausting dragon boat race around the Kallang Basin.

Every activity is aimed at forging a team spirit, and Indonesia archer Diananda Choirunisa is learning that teamwork is also linked to other values, such as respect. “We have to do everything as a team. If we don’t respect others, we won’t get teamwork like we have here,” she says.

Besides Ryu, participants also hear from other athletes and personalities alike, such as the first Singaporean women’s team that conquered Mount Everest, and ASEAN Para Games medallist Dr Darren Chua.

It has been a valuable experience for the participants. “I really love how the activities have united us through sports, it’s been a valuable experience,” says Malaysian rhythmic gymnast Amy Kwan. “I’ve made a lot of friendships, and learnt how to work with people from different countries.”

Indeed, on the last day of camp, their new found unity is on show as they cheer and wave their dinner napkins to the tune of Ricky Martin’s “The Cup of Life”.

“This camp helped to bring out the full potential and leadership skills in us, not just only in sport, but also in other aspects of our lives as well,” says So Chak Lung, a footballer from Hong Kong.

“It’s all about pushing our limits. If we never try, we never know.”