A gesture lifts South Korea

SINGAPORE -- Sometimes the smallest gesture tells you an awful lot about the essence of a person. Kim Dae Beom, who is 18 years old, had just won the boys' modern pentathlon here Sunday at the Singapore Sports School. He had made history. South Korea had never before won a pentathlon medal of any color at an Olympic event. Now, at these first-ever Youth Games, Dae Beom had just won gold.

It would have been all too easy for Dae Beom to make the moment all about him. It might even have been understandable.

Instead, in his moment of glory, Dae Beom had the presence to make it about something much more. A "precious opportunity," he had called the competition itself, and now he was about to make the most of another.

In so doing he would honor himself, his county and the sport itself. In taking one small step he made real the Olympic emphasis on excellence, friendship and respect.

They climbed onto the medals stand, Dae Beom along with runner-up Ilya Shugarov of Russia and third place-finisher Jorge Camacho of Mexico. Sir Philip Craven, along with Klaus Schormann, president of the modern pentathlon federation, appeared to hand out the medals. Sir Philip, president of the International Paralympic Committee, gets around in a wheelchair.

Dae Beom is only 5-foot-6; he was the shortest of the 24 competitors in Sunday's competition. Nonetheless, from the wheelchair to the top of the podium was something of a reach for Sir Philip.

Sensing that it might make Sir Philip slightly uncomfortable to have to reach up that far, wanting to honor Sir Philip even as Sir Philip was about to honor him, Dae Beom stepped down and off the podium, back onto the track.

There he positioned himself next to Sir Philip's chair, within easy reach.

And Sir Philip gently placed the gold medal around Dae Beom's neck.

Dae Beom declined to say anything later about the class and grace he displayed by the podium with Sir Philip. Again, the emphasis was elsewhere. "I am very happy to let people know about this sport," he said, adding, "Because not many people in Korea know about this sport."

Traditionally, pentathlon has been a European affair.

The sport combines five Olympic disciplines -- fencing, swimming, equestrian, running and shooting. It is has been part of the Summer Games program since 1912 in Stockholm; in those Olympics, an American army lieutenant, George Patton, would finish fifth.

The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, created the modern pentathlon. The idea is to replicate -- after a fashion -- the story of a soldier delivering a message. He has to ride an unfamiliar horse. He has to fight a duel. He is trapped but shoots his way out with a pistol. He swims a river. He completes the job by running a long distance through the woods.

Anyway, that's the idea.

After the Sydney Games, it wasn't clear that such an idea still had enough juice to carry on in the Olympic program. In 2002, in fact, pentathlon almost got the boot. Schormann, though, promised change, and the International Olympic Committee issued pentathlon a reprieve.

Two years ago, the pentathlon federation combined the running and shooting disciplines into one event. These Youth Games in Singapore saw the introduction of a further change -- the familiar air pistols were replaced with laser pistols.

"It's the way of the future," Prince Albert of Monaco, the federation's honorary president and an IOC member, said after watching the girls' event Saturday, won by Leydi Laura Moya Lopez  of Cuba.

The Koreans, Schormann asserted, have "always been my driving forces" to implement such changes. "The Europeans have always been complaining," he said. "The Koreans, Chinese and Japanese were forces for change."

If the Korean pentathlon record at the Summer Games has been oh-for-every-one-of-their-Olympics, the Korean record over the past two years at junior events hints at something very different soon enough, perhaps as soon as London and the 2012 Games.

Three of the top four at the 2009 junior worlds -- Korean boys. The winner of the 2009 junior world team event -- South Korea.

Two of the top three at the 2009 version of what in pentathlon circles is called the Youth A world championships, an event for 17- and 18-year-olds -- Korean.

At the 2010 Youth World A event, in June in Sweden, the Koreans won the team title; in the individual competition, Dae Beom won bronze.

And now, at the Youth Games, gold.

At the Youth Games, as at the youth world events, there is no equestrian portion -- meaning the pentathlon was something of a quadrathlon.

Dae Beom was seventh after the fencing portion. He moved into medal contention after finishing with the third-best time in the 200-meter swim.

As the run-and-shoot got underway, pentathlon experts were mostly watching Han Jiahao of China, the gold medalist at the 2010 Youth World A's. Jiahao's nickname is "King Kong," because, as he explains in a brief biography on the modern pentathlon website, "I think I resemble it."

Not this time. Jiahao faltered during the run-and-shoot. The laser pistols got him.

"I only [learned] about the usage of laser pistols when I came here," to Singapore, Jiahao said later, and a pause here to consider what the reception back home in China might be like for whoever it was that oversees -- perhaps now it's oversaw -- Jiahao's presentation.

How is it he or she or they, whatever, didn't know lasers were going to be used for the first time in pentathlon's 98-year history when everyone else knew?

Jiahao said, "I brought my own air pistols from China only to be informed that we are using laser pistols instead for the modern pentathlon."

Jiahao finished 11th overall.

Dae Beom, meanwhile, came on strong and steady during the run-and-shoot. After crossing the finish line, he staggered a few steps to the mixed zone, where athletes mingle with reporters. There, he collapsed to the track.

He got up a few moments later and said, "I didn't dream of this. It's a gift from heaven."