The 1988 Seoul Olympics did much to thrust Korea into the international spotlight, a trick repeated with the even more successful 2002 FIFA World Cup, an event co-hosted with Japan. But sport here is less about watching than doing, a fact evident in the well-trodden trails of the national parks, and the svelte proportions of the average Korean.
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The most popular activity is hiking, which is the national pastime owing to the country’s abundance of mountains and national parks.
The two most popular spectator sports in the country are football and baseball. Koreans tend to follow one or the other, though football has been in the ascendancy of late, particularly with women and the younger generation. Those looking for something authentically Korean should try to hunt down a ssireum wrestling tournament.
Soccer, or chuk-gu (축구), became the most popular sport in the country following its co-hosting of the World Cup in 2002. The ten gleaming new gyeonggi-jang built for the tournament were swiftly moved into by teams from the national K-League, but the high attendances that the tournament spawned dropped sharply as spectators realized that their local boys weren’t really better than Argentina – rows of empty seats mean that you’ll always be able to get a ticket at the door, with prices generally around W10,000. The championship trophy usually sits in or around Seoul: Suwon, Seongnam and FC Seoul have achieved domestic and international success, though Pohang and Jeonbuk have also won titles recently. Suwon and Daejeon are said to have the rowdiest fans. Other teams are listed below, though note that most teams operate as American-style “franchises” that can move lock, stock and barrel to more profitable locations at the drop of a hat. A few locals have escaped the K-League for more lucrative pastures, and Koreans are immensely proud of their sporting diaspora; as a foreigner you’re very likely to be quizzed about players such as Park Ji-sung, who made it to Manchester United via Holland.
Until 2002, baseball (yagu; 야구) was the spectator sport of choice. Though its popularity has waned, you’ll see a lot of games on Korean television, or can attend a professional game at one of the yagu-jang listed below; seasons run from April to October, with a break at the height of summer. Though the fielding, in particular, isn’t quite up to the level that American fans will be used to (and neither is the ballpark atmosphere), several Korean players have made their way into the Major League, including pitchers Kim Byung-hyun and Park Chan-ho. Since the turn of the century, the Unicorns, Lions and Wyverns have ruled the roost, though the Giants also deserve a mention thanks to their noisy support.
Though inevitably compared to sumo, this Korean form of wrestling (씨름) bears more resemblance to Mongolian styles – the wrestlers are chunky, rather than gargantuan, and they rely on grabs and throws, rather than slaps and pushes. As with sumo, the object of the wrestlers is to force their opponents to the floor, but in ssireum the fights start with both fighters interlocked. The sport is markedly less popular than its Japanese counterpart; few Koreans will be able to point you in the right direction if you wish to see a tournament, and even if you hunt one down the atmosphere will usually be low-key. The best place to catch a fight will be as part of a traditional festival, notably the early summer Dano in Gangneung.
In addition to being a nation of compulsive hikers, all Koreans are taught at school to exercise as a matter of course. Martial arts are among the nation’s most famed exports, but Western activities such as golf and skiing have caught on in recent decades.
Most Korean martial arts are variations of those that originated in China or Japan. Taekwondo (태권도) is the best known – developed in Tang-dynasty China, it was given a Korean twist during the Three Kingdoms period, going on to become one of the country’s most famed exports, and an Olympic sport to boot. The predominantly kick-based style is taught at schools, and forms the backbone of compulsory military service for the nation’s men. There are dozens of less common local styles to choose from; these include hapkido (합기도), better known in the West as aikido, its Japanese counterpart; and geomdo (검도), a form in which participants get to bonk each other with wooden poles and likewise known to the world as kendo.
The success of professional Korean golfers, mainly women such as LPGA champ Park Se-ri, has tempted many into taking up the game. Over a hundred courses dot the country, mainly surrounding Seoul or on Jeju Island; most are members-only clubs, however, and those that aren’t are pretty dear – the fact that Korean golfers often go to Japan to save money says it all. If you come in with clubs, don’t forget to declare them on arrival at the airport. Tourist offices will have information about nearby courses, though the average traveller will have to stick to the driving ranges dotted around the cities – scan the urban horizon for tower blocks topped by a large green net.
With sub-zero winters and mountainous terrain, it’s hardly surprising that skiing is big business in Korea, a country that came agonizingly close to being selected as the host of the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics. Non-Olympians looking to ski or snowboard in Korea should have few problems – there are a number of resorts, mainly in the northern provinces of Gyeonggi and Gangwon; most of these have ample accommodation facilities, though prices soar in the ski season (usually Dec–Feb). Clothes and ski equipment are available for hire, and many resorts have English-speaking instructors; prices vary from place to place, but expect lift passes to cost around W60,000 per day, with ski or snowboard rental another W30,000 on top of that.
Football and rugby
Football is played across the country by young males, mostly in the form of kick-abouts that would gladly absorb a foreign player or two. The best places to look are riverside flood plains, often wide enough to accommodate the odd pitch, or university campuses. There’s also the foreigners’ football league, a highly competitive affair; ask at your local expat bar for details, or try your luck on wssflkorea.com.