I’ve just spent a few days in Korea, where the country’s female golfers are perhaps as dominant on the world stage as any team in sports today. Comparing different teams in different sports brings to mind apples and oranges, but 35 of the world top 100 players are from a country with a population of under 50 million. South Koreans have won six of the past eight major championships, and came second in the other two.
What do they get for this? “Boring”, “faceless”, “robots”, “predictable” etc. Inbee Park has won three majors this year and gets fewer column inches than Hunter Mahan’s new baby. Today’s Sports Talk column looks at why sports stars might be better off striving for one level below perfection: become perfect and the fans and media will turn on you – or worse – just ignore you.
Excellence in sports is a flexible concept. An athlete may strive for years to reach the pinnacle of his or her sport, and, once there, is widely congratulated. But if an athlete, or country, becomes too dominant in a particular sport, then they are dismissed as boring, or portrayed as somehow being bad for the sport – simply for having achieved a lifetime’s ambition.
Take women’s golf for example. Six of the last seven major championships have been won by Koreans, and, at the time of writing, seven Korean women are in the Top 20 of the Ricoh Women’s British Open. This is no fluke: There are 20 Koreans in the world’s Top 50, including five in the Top 10.
This is celebrated in South Korea, of course, where there is wall-to-wall golf coverage, but in the absence of any dominant personalities, the rest of the golfing world views the Korean team as something akin to a faceless army of robots.
China, of course, is no stranger to dominance in this regard (or Sporting Robot Syndrome, depending on which side of the fence you are on). Chinese divers have just won nine out of 10 gold medals at the World Championships in Barcelona, following on from six out of eight diving golds at last year’s London Olympic Games and a clean sweep at the World Championships two years ago.
The situation in table tennis is even more pronounced: the Chinese have become so dominant in recent years that authorities have started to pair them up with weaker opponents in doubles competitions, ostensibly to make the games more competitive by having more balanced teams. After all, much of the beauty of sport is in the unpredictable nature of competition, but it’s harsh to criticize athletes effectively because they have done their jobs extremely well.
From an international perspective, it’s easier to focus on individuals. Tennis star Li Na and swimmer Sun Yang are better known worldwide than China’s diving or ping pong heroes, because they are the leading lights of a small group of Chinese stars in their sport. When you have six or eight Chinese athletes all winning Olympic or world titles in the same sport, those outside China simply don’t distinguish them from each other, even if they are huge individual stars inside China.
So for any budding Chinese athletes reading this: if you want to achieve truly global domination, pick a sport the Chinese don’t dominate.