Nationalism in Sports

In the US, spectators applaud excellent athletes regardless of national origin or race, according to the author. However, he says, this is not the case in South Korea, where national pride compels spectators to call foreign players "mercenaries" and domestic athletes to hinder their foreign teammates from excelling on the playing field. Not only are such reactions unsportsmanlike, they set a bad example. No where is competition more instructive than in sports: it allows the athlete to assess him or herself against a recognizable standard. Similarly, the author believes, in a globalized world, learning from competition is the key to success. – YaleGlobal

Nationalism in Sports

Cho Se-Hyon
Tuesday, April 6, 2004

As most sports fans know by now, Korean woman golfers have become a dominating force on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) circuit in the United States. They were doing so well that no less than five Korean golfers finished in the top 10 in the Kraft Nabisco Championship the weekend before last with Grace Park winning the title.

Many American and other foreign players and LPGA officials as well as ordinary American golf fans were reported to be amazed by so many qualified Korean golfers in the LPGA. But as far as I could determine, there has not been any public expressions of dismay or resentment over the lopsided inroad of Korean golfers.

It is true that there was criticism some time ago against fathers and some fans that spoke to the Korean players in Korean from the gallery. Critics assumed the conversations in Korean were coaching or giving playing tips in a loud voice on the field, which, I understand, is against the rules of the game. Except for that justifiable criticism, however, there have not been any complaints against the Korean players, as far as I know.

This proves that in professional sports, there is no discrimination based on the differences of race or nationality in America. As long as you are qualified and as long as you are willing to play by the rules of the game, you are welcome to compete, regardless of who or what you are. And fans applaud and admire you, if you are really good, regardless of the color of your skin or the language you speak. This, I think, is the spirit of professional sports in America in recent years.

I don't have to remind you that quite a few Korean and Japanese baseball players are making names for themselves in the Major Leagues while a Chinese has become a pivotal player for the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association.

America, of course, is not the only place where professional sports flourish, giving equal opportunities for all players from all over the world.

In Japan, sumo wrestling is the most tradition-bound sport with players and referees, judges and other officials following a set of rigid ritualized rules and manners. Yet, sumo today has accepted foreigners from such diverse countries as the United States, Mongolia, Argentina and South Korea. And a couple of Hawaiians, followed by a Mongolian, have reached the top of the heap, becoming grand champions, in recent years.

Watching the latest 15-day spring tournament in Osaka, western Japan, on television, I was impressed by the enthusiastic support and admiration expressed by Japanese fans for the reigning Mongolian Grand Champion Asashoryu, who won the Emperor`s Cup in two seasonal tournaments in a row. Even the Japanese, who can be pretty parochial and nationalistic in sporting events, are fair and open minded enough to accept foreigners without discrimination into their traditional game and treat them equally with the Japanese.

In sharp contrast, we Koreans tend to set foreign entries or foreign players apart in Korean sports and keep them as outsiders for as long as we possibly can. A case in point occurred in the High School Relay Marathon held in Gyeongju two weeks ago. Although it wasn`t a professional event, boys and girls teams from high schools in Japan and China were invited to compete in the race. They were apparently much better than their Korean counterparts. For they finished the race far ahead of the best Korean teams. And yet, in reporting on the results of the race the next day, not a single newspaper mentioned the Japanese and Chinese teams in their articles.

What counted for the Korean reporters was, no doubt, how the Korean high school teams fared. But as long as we invited the foreign teams to compete in the race, they should have also reported on their performance as well, especially when the Korean teams could not put up a close race against them. The relatively poor performance of the Korean teams hurt our pride and that, obviously, was why we consciously or unconsciously tried to ignore the foreign entries and their records. But we have to know our opponents if we want to catch up with them and eventually beat them.

This tendency to segregate the "imports," or "mercenaries," as foreign players are called here, is pronounced in professional sports such as basketball, baseball and soccer. Although most of these "foreign mercenaries" are playing an important role in improving the performance of their Korean teammates by setting higher standards, most of them are ignored when the time comes to honor or appreciate select players on such occasions as voting for all star teams or giving individual performance awards.

That is not all. When the annual season winds down, attention is centered around who are going to be the best players in various categories of a given sport, like the top scorer in soccer and basketball, the best three-point shooter in basketball, or the leading home-run hitter in baseball and so on. And when a Korean is in a close race against a foreigner for such an honor, Korean players on the same team as well as members of the opponent team, believe it or not, do their best to help the Korean player come out ahead of the "foreign mercenary." They feed the ball almost exclusively to the Korean player or create a good opening for him to score, so that he will become the best player of the year, beating the foreign competitor.

Such a nationalistic sentiment and fanatical support for a Korean team or individual players is never harmless because it reflects poor sportsmanship and gives a bad example to our children who need to be taught to function in an increasingly globalized world. In addition, we only hurt ourselves when we are too narrow-minded and biased against non-Korean players, especially in professional sports, because, as I said, it often is the foreign players who help us improve the game or let us know where our players stand in international arenas.

For most of his career, the writer was a reporter working in Tokyo, New York and elsewhere for an American news agency. He returned to his native Korea in the early 1990s.

ⓒ Copyright 2002 Digital Korea Herald.