Good-looking athletes attract fans but problems too
Ability is everything in sports.
But these days it sounds like an outdated catchphrase, as good-looking athletes are enjoying rock-star status, dominating local sports.
Their emergence, combining skills and looks, is attracting more fans resulting in raising the profile of the sports they play ― especially less-followed ones.
However, critics say that wild excitement about good-looking athletes can misleadingly evaluate players on the basis of their physical traits and the tail can wag the dog in terms of enjoying sports.
Until mid-2006, Koreans appeared to only enjoy watching three major sports, four if generously adding volleyball to baseball, football and basketball.
But since Kim Yu-na, with a pretty face and model-like appearance along with her top skating skills, showed up on people’s radar in 2006, she has fronted sellout ice dancing shows, which had been unfamiliar in Korea. In addition, young figure skaters, so-called “Yu-na kids,” who grew up watching Kim rise to become Olympic and world champion, have set their sights on the next Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in 2014 and in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, in 2018.
“Before Kim’s advent, I never knew about figure skating but now I am familiar with the judging system as well as with its terms like triple axel or spiral,” said Choi Eun-young, a regular visitor to Kim’s annual ice show.
Swimming has also benefitted from the emergence of manly and cute-looking Park Tae-hwan, who triumphed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 along with claiming world titles in 2007 and 2011.
Ahead of his arrival, people hardly attended swimming events but he has attracted sellout crowds, even in local competitions, rising as one of the biggest draws among domestic athletes.
The same is true for baby-faced badminton star Lee Yong-dae, who also won a gold medal in Beijing.
Currently, professional sports clubs are also trying to jump on the bandwagon, promoting players who are physically appealing.
Ahead of this season, the Korean Volleyball Federation (KOVO) held a free-hug ceremony in August in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, to boost interest in the sport and each team picked popular players for the event.
However, the trend of excessively concentrating on external features is causing conflict because the spotlight goes to those who have a physical advantage regardless of ability.
In a recent interview, Kim Ga-young, the world No. 1 in the Women’s Professional Billiard Association (WPBA) rankings, complained that she was categorized with Cha Yu-ram as a rival. Cha, called a “billiards beauty” in Korea, has basked in the spotlight on the back of her physical traits rather than her pool skills.
Kim, four years Cha’s senior, said in the interview that people have mistaken Cha for the world No. 1.
Recently, the Hyundai Green Fox topped the search list on local portal sites but it was not for the performance of the women’s volleyball club but for the team’s attractive English interpreter working for its imported player.
She was accidently caught on camera and instantly dubbed as a goddess of the volleyball court. Since then, photos of her have been plastered on portal sites and TV cameras often focus on her.
“She was embarrassed by the abrupt and excessive interest,” said a club official.
The interpreter also said in an interview that she feels sorry for taking the attention instead of her team.
However, appealing appearances do not always end up working for athletes.
Son Yeon-jae, a rhythmic gymnast, has risen as a new pin-up girl on the back of her her cute look. In addition, the 17-year-old has shot several commercials in Korea, becoming one of the most sought-after athletes of late.
But despite her popularity, there are a large number of anti-Son fans claiming she should be evaluated by her achievements, not her appearance.
“As Son is a bronze medalist at the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010 and has punched her ticket to the London Olympics, she is definitely a prospect in Korean rhythmic gymnastics,” said a sports fan, who declined to be identified.
“But I do not agree that she is a top-echelon athlete like Kim Yu-na or Park Tae-hwan, so Son had better earn the respect she is currently enjoying based on her accomplishments.”