S. Korea gears up for another top 10 Olympic finish in Rio

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Baku, February 2, Yonhap-AZERTAC 

As an age-old golf cliche goes, you can't win a tournament in the first round, but you can certainly lose one.

A few weeks into 2016, South Korean athletes gearing up for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are taking up the same mantra: that they may not be able to win a medal in January, but they can possibly lose one before they even get to Brazil.

Such is the importance placed on the last winter training for the athletes before the first Summer Games in South America. Choi Jong-sam, head of the National Training Center in Seoul, said how the athletes prepare themselves in the next month or so will make or break their chances of reaching the podiums in Rio.

"For our athletes to be able to compete at a high level, they have to be well-conditioned," Choi said. "It will help them take the next step. Many of our forefathers in sports have emphasized conditioning over skills and techniques. We're trying to steer our athletes in that direction."

South Korea will be gunning for its fourth consecutive top 10 finish in the Summer Olympic medal table. Earlier this month, Infostrada Sports, a Dutch sports data analysis firm, unveiled its Virtual Medal Table (VMT) and projected South Korea to win 12 gold medals.

It would fall just one shy of South Korea's all-time record of 13, set in Beijing in 2008 and matched in London in 2012.

The projection may vary in the coming months with Olympic qualifications still under way in some sports.

Archery, though, will almost certainly be a major goldmine for South Korea once again. South Korea has grabbed 19 gold medals since the start of modern archery competition in 1972, more than any other nation. It won three out of four archery gold medals in London, and the VMT predicts that South Korea will pull off a sweep of all four titles -- men's and women's individual and team events -- for the first time in Rio.

Leading the way in London was Ki Bo-bae, who captured both the individual and team gold medals in the women's competition. The South Korean talent pool in archery is so deep that Ki actually missed the national team for the 2014 Asian Games -- the running joke in archery is that it's more difficult to make the national team than to win an Olympic medal -- but she has since found her groove again.

Now she's attempting to make history -- becoming the first South Korean female archer to defend an Olympic individual gold medal.

The 27-year-old said she won't look that far down the road just yet, knowing making the national team will be no easy task.

"Four years have gone by fast, and Rio is just around the corner. But I think it's premature to talk about winning back-to-back gold medals," she said. "I have to get on the team first at the Olympic team trials in March."

Moon Hyung-chul, head coach of the archery team, sounded decidedly more confident.

"Our goal is always to win every gold medal at stake," he said before flying to Rio last week for an early training session with the current national team. "When we came up short in international competitions before, it wasn't because we lacked skills. We failed to adjust to the local climate and other conditions. We have to closely analyze our reasons for those close calls and get ready for the Olympics."

Unlike Ki and other archers, Lee Dae-hoon in men's taekwondo won't have to worry about making the Olympic team. One of South Korea's projected gold medalists by VMT, Lee has been awarded an automatic berth based on his Olympic ranking position by the World Taekwondo Federation.

The 23-year-old has won virtually every title a taekwondo fighter can win, except for an Olympic gold. He has two world titles, two Asian Games gold medals and two Asian championships under his belt but settled for silver in the 58-kilogram class at his Olympic debut four years ago.

Lee will be competing in the 68-kilogram division in Rio, where he hopes to do one better on the podium.

"In London, I don't think I competed the way I am capable of," he said. "It wasn't that I was disappointed with the silver. I was more frustrated that I couldn't do what I'd prepared to do. I want to make sure things will be different this time."

Lee said he will be up against "taller and stronger" opponents in the heavier weight class, but added, "I will study and analyze them closely and prepare the best I can."

Where Lee might have fallen short of expectations in London, South Korean fencers shocked the world with their monumental performance in the British capital, winning two gold, one silver and three bronze medals. Only Italy, with three gold, two silver and two bronze medals, picked up more fencing medals than South Korea.

One of the South Korean gold medalists, Kim Ji-yeon in women's sabre, said she's trying to temper her own expectations, lest the pressure to repeat affect her preparations.

"If I set my goal too high, there will just be too much pressure," she said. "I was only trying to enjoy myself in London, and I am hoping to have the same mindset going into Rio."

She's battling some pains in her left hip area and said staying healthy is almost as important as conditioning and technical training.

"Compared to four years ago, my rivals have improved a great deal in terms of their techniques and tactics," Kim said. "I am studying their videos closely to get a better sense of the competition."

The other gold medal in London came from the men's sabre team event, with Gu Bon-gil leading the way. The 26-year-old said the Olympic gold has put a bull's-eye on the back of South Korean fencers.

"Ever since London, other countries have been keeping an even closer eye on us," said the former world No. 1, who is now the third-ranked male sabre fencer. "But it's business as usual for us, as we get ready for the Olympics by competing in World Cups and Grand Prix events."

In Rio, South Korean judokas will try to pull off some surprises of their own. South Korea has claimed at least one judo gold medal in each of the past three Olympics, and three up-and-comers will be looking to extend the winning tradition.

An Ba-ul won his first world championship last August in the men's 66kg class, adding to his gold at the Summer Universiade a month earlier. The 21-year-old had earlier won the world junior championship in 2013, and an Olympic gold will cap off an impressive run of international victories.

Gwak Dong-han also won both the world championship and the Summer Universiade gold last year in the men's 90kg class, climbing to the No. 1 spot in International Judo Federation's world rankings in his division. The 23-year-old also has an Asian championship to his credit.

"People may be expecting big things because I've done well of late, but I don't think I am yet good enough to be ranked No. 1 in the world," Gwak said. "I have to study my rivals closely and train hard to do well at the Olympics."

While An and Gwak both won their first world titles last summer, An Chang-rim in the men's 73kg class settled for bronze after bowing out to his main nemesis, Shohei Ono of Japan, in the semifinals.

Ono has had An's numbers in recent meetings, having also beaten him at the Tokyo Grand Slam in December 2014 and at the Dusseldorf Grand Prix in May last year.

An did win the Universiade gold and the Asian championship last year to rise to No. 2 in the world rankings, four spots ahead of Ono, but the South Korean said the rankings can be thrown out the window.

"I was disappointed to walk away with only the bronze medal at the world championships," An said. "Obviously, Ono will be a strong contender. I will try to do better at the Olympics. I just have to get better and prepare as if this will be my last Olympics."

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