South Korea

Olympics: once more 'a symbol of hope and peace in our troubled times'

Olympics: once more 'a symbol of hope and peace in our troubled times'

On Rodney King’s gravestone at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, it says, “Can we all get along,” a reference to Mr. King’s plea amid his early 1990s encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s a very different context but — in just so many words, that is what the Olympic movement, at its best, is all about.

To fulfill the words of the soul poet Rodney King, the movement’s No. 1 mission in our complicated world— its raison d’etre — is not just to be relevant. Or even to remain relevant. It is to assert its relevance.

Over the past many months, the movement has struggled, and mightily, with this notion. A succession of brutal headlines have caused some, if not many, to wonder about the Olympic movement’s place, beset as it has been by Russian doping, sexual abuse and misconduct scandals, skyrocketing cost overruns associated with the Games, diminishing taxpayer interest in staging future editions of the Olympics and more. 

Now, though, comes word of a remarkable breakthrough: North Korea will send athletes to February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Americans 2-for-2 in judo gold

SINGAPORE -- When he was a toddler, Max Schneider was one of those kids who got bullied in pre-school. The normal stuff, he says now. Hey, kid, I want your toy -- and the next thing you'd know, Max would be on the floor. This would not do, Max's mom, Adelina, decided. She was concerned her son would always be on the small side and picked on. So she found a judo program in the neighborhood in Chicago where they lived, and put him in the class.

What do you know -- Max Schneider turned out to be a natural at judo, a sport that many Americans assuredly have heard of but couldn't tell you the first thing about.

A couple days ago here at the first-ever Youth Olympic Games, Max won gold in the boys' 66-kilogram class (that's 146 pounds). That was the first-ever gold medal for the United States in an Olympic-category judo event.

The very next night, Katelyn Bouyssou of Hope, R.I., won gold in the girls' 52-kilo class (114 pounds).

Two golds in two days -- the American team one of only two to win two gold medals in a sport in which nations were allowed here to enter, in total, one boy and one girl. South Korea was the other.

The Americans, though, will leave these Youth Games as the only judo team to hold opponents scoreless. Again: neither Max nor Katelyn gave up even a single point.

In judo!

American performance in judo over the years on the Olympic stage calls to mind the sort of thing a boy who lives on the North Side of Chicago would know a lot about -- the Cubs, and how they pretty much never win the big one.

American men have won nine Summer Games medals, American women one. The men have won three silvers and six bronzes;  Ronda Rousey won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the women's 70-kilo class (154 pounds).

That's it, and judo has been on the Olympic program now for two generations.

Judo is of course one of the martial arts. It's not taekwondo, where they kick each other. It's not boxing, where they slug each other with gloves. In wrestling, they wear tight-fitting singlets and grunt like forest animals.

In judo, the competitors wear a woven uniform called a gi. The point is to throw your opponent down or otherwise subdue him (or her) or force him (or her) to submit.

There's a bigber-picture ethos to judo. The point is to improve one's self physically, mentally, even emotionally.

It's something of a mystery how in a nation of 300 million people and who knows how many self-improvement gurus the United States holds zero Summer Olympics gold medals in the sport.

Then again, it figures that at these Youth Games the Americans would excel in something like judo.

These are the Games at which nations that traditionally have done well in certain sports haven't (United States, swimming) and nations that typically are extras on the Olympic scene are suddenly starring (girls' soccer final Tuesday: Chile v. Equatorial Guinea, boys' soccer final Wednesday: Bolivia v. Haiti).

The two American medals here perhaps signal something big come London and the 2012 Games.

Katelyn, who is 16, last year became the youngest U.S. athlete ever to compete at the senior world championships; she first won her class at the U.S. nationals as a 14-year-old.

Her father, Serge, is her coach. In the finals, Katelyn fought Anna Dmitrieva, a Russian. "We talked about her killing the Russian's grip, killing her right hand, and then staying on the offense," the father said later.

Max is 17. Along with being a world-class junior judo player, he has become a big-time high school wrestler. Two years ago, as an incoming freshman at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago, he approached the wrestling coach, whose name is Mark Medona. "And," as Max tells the story, "I said, hey, my name is Max. I won nationals in judo last year. And I would like to join the wrestling team.

"His first response was actually pretty funny," Max said. "He told me to take my cock-and-bull story to someone who believed it.

Then, Max said, coach Medona "went down and researched my name and found out what I said was true. And I kept coming back."

As a freshman, Max made it to the Illinois state high school finals. This past school year, as a sophomore, wrestling at 145 pounds, he enjoyed an undefeated season en route to the state championship.

That, though, was followed by shoulder surgery on April 12, just four months ago. Max didn't get cleared to play judo here until July.

In the final, Max faced Hyon Song-chol of North Korea; the two had never seen or fought each other before.

Serge, the American coach here who also coached the 2009 junior world team, said after Max's victory, "I'm fighting back tears, if that'll tell you anything."

Max said that "ever since I was a little kid" it had "been my dream to be the first to do it," to win an Olympic-event gold for the United States.

He said of his Youth Games gold, "This is as close as I've ever come to a real Olympic medal. On some levels it feels like it.

"On others, I know I still have a lot to overcome."

Not, though, at school. Nobody bullies Max Schneider. "No," he said. "Not anymore."

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."