LONDON – Their names change, the Games change, but their arrows never falter — the South Korean women’s archery team are Olympic champions once again.
Explanations include kimchi and their country’s unique chopsticks, but there’s no doubt about the Korean women’s remarkable dominance in archery. Their victory over China on Sunday was South Korea’s seventh consecutive women’s team gold.
No other country has won the gold medal since the team event was introduced at the 1988 Games in Seoul.
In fact the Koreans have garnered 13 of the 14 team and individual archery gold medals contested since 1984, making them perhaps the greatest Olympic women’s team of all time.
Theories for this prolific success range from the logical to the plausible to the downright bizarre.
‘Kimchi Fingers’ falls into the latter category.
The ‘theory’ goes that Korean women excel at feel sports such as archery and golf because of heightened sensitivity and dexterity in their hands and fingers.
This sensitivity supposedly developed generations ago through the traditional method of making the national dish kimchi, where women use their hands to lovingly squeeze, swirl and smear hot pepper paste over cabbage leaves for hours on end.
“South Korean women have more sensitive hands than any other women in the world,” said Baek Woong-gi, an archery coach for the Korean national team, before the team flew to London for the Olympics.
“They do things so well with their hands. When Korean women cook, it’s as if their hands are giving the food more flavour or taste.”
Another explanation for this increased dexterity lies in their traditional eating utensil — Korean chopsticks.
While other Asian countries also use chopsticks, they tend to be longer, wooden implements, relatively easy to use. Korean chopsticks are made of slippery, slender steel and are incredibly difficult to master.
Even Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid film would have no hope of catching a fly with them, as he did in a famous scene.
Scientist Hwang Woo-suk, whose team produced the first cloned dog (an Afghan hound called Snuppy), used the chopstick theory to explain South Koreans’ talent at micromanipulating eggs and embryos in stem cell research.
Hwang was later found guilty of fraud and fabricating results, somewhat devaluing his opinions, but the chopstick theory still has wide following.
“Doctors talk about ‘chopstick technology’,” said coach Baek. “Our women archers have excellent feeling with their fingers. They know whether they shot well or not immediately after the arrow leaves their fingers.”
Yet another theory holds that Koreans are predisposed to becoming great archers. That’s the contention, anyway, of Lee Sung-jin, part of the victorious Korean teams at the London Olympics and eight years earlier in Athens.
“I think it is in our blood to be good at shooting arrows,” she said after Korea’s win on Sunday. “I don’t know, it just feels that to be a Korean is to be a good archer.”
Lee’s team mate Ki Bo-bae believes just making it onto the national team was the hard part.
“It’s easier to win an Olympic gold medal than to get on the Korean national archery team, I really feel that,” she said ahead of the Games.
However, if kimchi and chopsticks were all it took to become a world-beating archer, North Korea’s Kwon Un-sil must be wondering why she has yet to win an Olympic medal.
Kwon, from South Hamgyung province in the impoverished North, has found success hard to come by and exceeded all expectations by finishing fourth at the 2008 Beijing Games — losing in the semi-final to South Korea’s Park Sung-hyun.
Kwon was then denied the bronze medal by another South Korean, Yun Ok-hee.
With creative theories abounding, other coaches offer a more conventional explanation for the Korean women’s success: a determined work ethic.
Driven, disciplined and devoted to training, Korean archers live and breathe their sport.
They receive instruction from the world’s best coaches at a very early age and are trained with the aim of competition — not enjoyment. Huge financial support from big Korean sponsors allows them to concentrate solely on archery as they get older.
An embarrassment of archery riches.
Lee Ki-sik, the head coach of the United States archery team and former head of the gold greedy Koreans, told Reuters that emphasizing success over fun was behind South Korea’s success.
“The key to their success is the different approach to development. Even in Korean school sports there are no recreations archers,” he added.
“Anyone who gets into the sport in Korea means they are aiming to become an Olympic archer. That’s the difference.”