At the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Korea will try to break out of its comfort zone as its women’s curling team looks to sweep its way to the country’s first ever medal in a non-skating event.
Korea earned its first Olympic berth in curling with a Top 4 finish at the World Women’s Curling Championships in Canada last year. Just last month, Korea won its first ever international tournament outside of Korea at the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships in Shanghai, China.
“We are aiming for the podium at the Olympic Games, maybe the top spot,” team captain Kim Ji-sun told Reuters.
South Korea has won 45 medals at the Winter Games since it first began competing in 1948. Only 14 countries — and no other Asian countries — have won more medals than Korea.
What is mysterious about Korea’s success at the Winter Olympics, however, is that all of their medals have been won in just three events — short track speed skating, speed skating and figure skating. Korea and the Netherlands are the only two countries among the top 15 in the all-time medal table that won all of their medals in just three events; the 13 other countries have won a medal in at least nine different sports.
Curling is still considered an obscure sport to most Koreans. The Korean Curling Association was founded in 1994, almost three decades after the establishment of the World Curling Federation. The curling association for rival Japan, which recently lost to Korea in the final of the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships, was founded in 1985.
Until the women’s team earned an Olympic berth, the government funding for the national team program was virtually non-existent as curlers oftentimes had to do their own cooking and laundry even while they were called up to train at the Taeneung National Training Center. At one international event, they saw a team discard some lightly-used broom pads and later happily rescued them from the trash.
“Some still belittle the sport, calling it just ‘sweeping the ice’, but I’m not offended at all,” Kim said. “It would be better if they used the term ‘curling’ but at least they know what we do and how we do it.”
After the team’s rise and Korea’s successful bid to host the 2018 Games, retail conglomerate Shinsegae pledged $9.4 million in funding to help the team and promote the unfamiliar game throughout the country.
“Everything flipped upside down,” coach Chung Young-sup said. “There’s been such a big change, the difference is tangible.”
Despite its recent success, the Korean women’s team is ranked No. 8 by the WCF (based on accumulated points from the last two World Championships), lowest among teams that already qualified for the Sochi Games, but the team is determined to rise to the challenge.
“We are literally grinding our teeth,” Kim said, “in order to live up to the expectation.”