Is second Olympic title realistic for Oh Jin Hyek after retirement delay?
For as familiar a presence on the medal stand as Korea has become, many of its archers remain anonymous.
This is partly by design. With a pool of more than 100 full-time professionals to choose from, archery’s leading competitive nation never relies on a single archer to win, instead placing its faith in process, training and structures that develop a seemingly endless reservoir of talented athletes from which its national team is selected.
Last month, the Korean Olympic Committee reportedly set a clean-sweep target for its archers in Tokyo.
They are, without a doubt, favourites – the only variable is who exactly those favourites might be. Of the six Korean archers going to Japan, four will be making their debut at the Games.
Oh Jin Hyek, the first Korean man to win an individual Olympic title, is one of the two members of the squad in Tokyo with Olympic experience. The wily, resilient veteran knows just how cutthroat Korea’s selection process can be.
And he wasn’t planning to put himself through it again in 2021.
Four years after collecting gold at the 2012 Olympics in London, Oh missed out on the chance to defend his title at Rio 2016, dropping off the squad that would instead send his Hyundai Steel teammate – and eventual winner – Ku Bonchan to Brazil.
It signalled what could have been the end of an illustrious career.
But a strong showing at the selection trials in 2020 and a desire for one more shot at the Olympics inspired him to delay his planned retirement when the Games were postponed by 12 months. Despite battling a shoulder injury for the best part of a decade, Oh still has his sights set on a grand finale to a decorated international career spanning more than 20 years.
“I was thinking about my retirement at the end of this competition but now the time will be delayed,” Oh told Naver Sports in March 2020.
“I prepared my mind to accept that reality this morning and start again – and found I had the energy to do so.”
Oh, 39, is the only past individual Olympic Champion competing at the archery events in Tokyo.
His teammate, Kim Woojin, was a member of the Korean recurve men’s team that won gold at Rio in 2016, and Mauro Nespoli helped Italy win the recurve men’s team gold at London 2012. It is, otherwise, a field of relative inexperience.
Oh – as he often does – stands out.
Whether it’s his imposing stature, his rather unorthodox technique or the fact that, arriving at these Olympics, he is undoubtedly the experienced elder – the old guard, if you will – he demands attention. And while it’s likely that Jin Hyek will also compete at the Hyundai World Archery Championships at the end of this year, the Games feel every bit the last hurrah.
Korea’s dominance in the women’s competition – along with the inherent difficulty of making one Olympics, let alone two – is largely responsible for the dearth of past winners at this year’s Games.
No other country has won the gold medal since the recurve women’s team event was introduced at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, and they have collected eight of the past nine individual Olympic gold medals since 1984. More often than not, winners at the Games have been first-timers, with 19 of the 24 available individual golds since 1972 going to debutants.
With one final Olympic appearance in Tokyo, Oh will attempt to match Pace’s record.
There’s only been one archer from Korea to return and medal at the Games having missed an edition – Kim Soo-Nyung’s comeback was at Sydney 2000, eight years after her silver in Barcelona and 12 on from her winning performance in Seoul.
The embodiment of perseverance, has Oh Jin Hyek got enough left in the tank?
Is he stubborn enough to fight his way to a second crown at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games?