Seoul: At the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, the world No. 1-ranked men’s badminton tandem of Lee Yong-dae and Yoo Yeon-seong are considered the biggest medal hope for South Korea. But they are not the only pair that the country is counting on for a medal.
Ko Sung-hyun and Kim Ha-na are ranked No. 2 in the mixed doubles. They have been gearing up for the Rio Games well, winning five tournaments last year and also triumphing at the German Open in March and the Singapore Open in April. The two finished runners-up at the Indonesia Open last week, but in the semifinals they beat the top-ranked Chinese pair of Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei.
“Our confidence level is high after we collected good results in recent tournaments,” Ko said on Thursday at the National Training Center in Seoul. “If we can remedy our shortcomings, I think we will also get a good result at the Rio Games.”
When asked about what they need to improve, Ko and Kim said they will first reduce silly mistakes. Both players also admitted that they had ups-and-downs in their performance, but will try to play a steadier game whomever they face, whether they are Chinese or Indonesian.
“I personally made too many mistakes with net shots,” Kim said. “We will enhance our concentration during matches.”
South Korean badminton has produced two Olympic gold medals in mixed doubles. At the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games Kim Dong-moon and Gil Young-ah topped the podium, and 12 years later in Beijing Lee Yong-dae and Lee Hyo-jung repeated the feat.
Ko and Kim, who have been playing together since 2013, said they are aware of the history and will not damage the legacy. South Korean head coach Lee Deuk-choon had a conservative prediction on the mixed double tandem, but he had no doubt that they will grab a medal in Brazil.
“For the mixed double, we are looking for them to reach the final,” Lee said. “But once they are in the final, we will obviously look for the gold.”
For the Rio Games, South Korea will send two players each in the men and women’s singles, as well as two pairs each in the doubles. The only event in which South Korea doesn’t have two representatives is the mixed doubles.
While the two South Korean teams in the men’s doubles said that they want to face each other in the final, Ko and Kim will never face their compatriots at the Olympics. However, being the only South Korean representative doesn’t bother them.
“I don’t think it gives us pressure,” Kim said. “We just have to focus on our own performance.”
Both Ko and Kim will have their second Olympic appearance in August. And they won’t just be looking for the gold medal; they will also be trying to wash away painful memories from their past.
At the 2012 London Games, Ko partnered with Yoo in the men’s doubles, but they were eliminated in the group stage. Since then, Ko has been playing with Shin Baek-cheol in the men’s doubles to repair his honor, but the pair failed to grab a ticket to Rio despite the No. 6 rankings. While Lee Yong-dae and Yoo Yeong-seong secured their Olympic berth easily as the world No. 1, another Olympic spot went to Kim Gi-jung and Kim Sa-rang, who are now the No. 3-ranked tandem.
Ko, the second-oldest player on the South Korean badminton squad at 29, said he is ready to put all of his efforts into what could be his final Olympics.
“Four years ago I failed to show all my talents,” he said. “It’s sad that Shin is not going to the Rio Games with me, but I will pick up the slack for him and do my best.”
Kim’s story is more dramatic than Ko’s. The 26-year-old was disqualified from her maiden Summer Games four years ago after she was involved in a so-called “play-to-lose” scandal that also kicked out Chinese and Indonesian teams from the London Games.
In 2012, Kim played with Jung Kyung-eun in the women’s double. Following their coach’s orders, they were attempting to lose their round-robin matches on purpose in a bid to secure favorable draws in the quarterfinals. Both players and another women’s doubles team of Kim Min-jung and Ha Jung-eun were later banned from competing by the Korean Olympic Committee until 2013.
Kim said that she has grown up after going through the scandal and promised that match-throwing will never happen again.
“The scar of the scandal still remains in my heart,” she said. “In Rio, I want to show all my skills, which I couldn’t do four years ago.”
With the Rio Games less than 50 days away, Ko and Kim are now trying to maintain their good pace. Ko said he feels a little pain on his lower back, but believes he will fully recover soon. Kim, meanwhile, said she is healthy, but is working on her stamina.
“When my power and Ha-na’s delicate plays mingle well, I think we can beat any team in the world,” Ko said. (Yonhap)