Legendary Korean Athletes in the Olympics and Every Sport

Lingua Asia Legendary Korean Athletes of All Time

In Korea, there’s no participation trophies, and no one remembers second place.

If you’ve seen Physical: 100 or Squid Game, you know what I mean. It’s winner take all!

Here are the UNDISPUTED champions in every sport from Olympic medalists to famous pro athletes!

Key Takeaways

  • Yuna Kim
  • Se Ri Pak
  • Chan Ho Park
  • Heung-min Son

1. Yuna Kim (김연아)

  • Born: September 5, 1990, Bucheon, South Korea
  • Height: 1.64 m
  • Weight: 47 kg

“Long live the QUEEN!”

NBC’s Tom Hammond

We’ll start with the most successful and famous South Korean athlete.

Yuna Kim is an Olympic figure skating champion, and the most respected and beloved sports star in the country.

She’s the first female skater to win every major international competition and complete a Super Slam.

Before Yuna Kim, most Koreans didn’t even know about figure skating. And she achieved this on her own (with help from her family) without any sponsorship or support from the government/organizations.

On top of her achievements as an athlete, Yuna Kim is also well-known for her personal good deeds and charitable activities, including sponsoring figure skating hoobae.

Can you believe that she’s also good at singing?

Yuna can do it all!

2. Se Ri Pak (박세리)

  • Born: September 28, 1977, Gwangju, South Korea
  • Height: 1.69 m
  • Weight: 67 kg

“In Korea, people who don’t know golf know Se Ri. She’s everybody’s hero in Korea.”

Birdie Kim

Se Ri Pak is a professional golfer who played on the LPGA Tour from 1998 to 2016. She was also inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.

Se Ri Pak is a LEGEND and INSPIRATION in South Korea.

Koreans will forever remember when she went barefoot into a water hazard to get the ball onto the green during the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open. With that, she won the championship and became the youngest-ever winner at age 20. (This record was later broken by Inbee Park and Yuka Saso.)

She became an icon of never giving up, and inspired Koreans who were struggling during the IMF crisis.

She emerged as a national hero along with Chan Ho Park.

3. Chan Ho Park (박찬호)

  • Born: July 28, 1973, Gongju, South Korea
  • Height: 1.85 m
  • Weight: 95 kg

A sports hero, Chan Ho Park, is also known as the “Too Much Talker (투머치토커)” in Korea, but in a good way.

Putting aside his genuine and likeable personality, Chan Ho Park had an amazing career being the first South Korean player in Major League Baseball, and the winningest Asian pitcher (124 wins).

He played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, and Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball (MLB).

Chan Ho Park gave hope to Koreans who suffered during the financial crisis of 1997 together with Se Ri Pak.

4. Bum-kun Cha (차범근)

  • Born: May 22, 1953, Hwaseong, South Korea
  • Height: 1.79 m
  • Weight: 78 kg

One of the greatest Asian soccer players of all time.

I know him as footballer Du-ri Cha’s father, but he was a famous player himself in the ’70s and ’80s.

He was nicknamed “Cha Boom” in Germany because of his thunderous ball striking ability (phrasing).

It’s remarkable that he started playing in the Bundesliga (German football league) at the age of 26 after fulfilling his mandatory military duty at the ROK Air Force for 27 months (+ 5 months more later because the ROK Air Force said so).

If it hadn’t been for military service, he could’ve played in Europe earlier, and would’ve had more outstanding performances and set more records.

5. Ji-sung Park (박지성)

  • Born: March 30, 1981, Seoul, South Korea
  • Height: 1.75 m

A star from the 2002 FIFA World Cup where every Korean joined in on “Red Devil” street cheering (this was peaceful despite its name).

Ji-sung Park was a soccer player who was a midfielder.

Nicknamed Three-Lung Park, he showed exceptional endurance, fitness, discipline and off-the-ball movement.

More about Korean fitness

He’s also the most successful Asian player in soccer history, winning 19 trophies during his career.

6. Heung-min Son (손흥민)

  • Born: July 8, 1992, Chuncheon, South Korea
  • Height: 1.83 m
  • Weight: 78 kg

Taking the baton from Ji-sung Park, Heung-min Son is the most popular footballer, sports star and celebrity in Korea right now.

Just like Se Ri Pak and Chan Ho Park who gave hope to Koreans during the IMF crisis, Heung-min Son spread so much joy during the pandemic in 2020.

He plays as a forward for Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur and captains the Korean national team.

Heung-min Son is the first and only Asian player to win the Premier League Golden Boot award with 23 goals.

7. Yeon-koung Kim (김연경)

  • Born: February 26, 1988, Ansan, South Korea
  • Height: 1.92 m
  • Weight: 72 kg

Yeon-koung Kim is the player Koreans think of when they hear the word “volleyball”.

As a top volleyball player in the world, she’s a star and all-rounder from South Korea.

She’s also super easy to pick out on the court, because she towers over other players.

Yeon-koung Kim is an outside hitter who achieved a ton of success in Europe. She was the highest-paid volleyball player in the world for a while.

After being on the Korean TV show, I Live Alone, she seems like a cool unnie I want to hang out with.

8. Sang-hwa Lee (이상화)

  • Born: February 25, 1989, Seoul, South Korea
  • Height: 1.65 m

Known for her legendary records and strict self-discipline!

Sang-hwa Lee is a retired speed skater, a two-time Olympic champion in the 500 meter and the 2010 World Sprint champion.

She also holds the current world record in the women’s 500 meter event at 36.36 seconds, which she accomplished in Salt Lake City in 2013.

On a reality TV show, singer Kangnam’s dog showed affection to Sang-hwa Lee while barking at others, which gave away their relationship before the public knew. Now, she’s married to Kangnam.

9. Mi-ran Jang (장미란)

  • Born: October 9, 1983, Wonju, South Korea
  • Height: 1.7 m
  • Weight: 118 kg

The symbol of EFFORT, Mi-ran Jang is a Korean Olympic weightlifter.

At the 2008 Summer Olympics, she won the gold medal, which is the first and only time in Korean women’s weightlifting history.

Mi-ran Jang even broke world records in the snatch with 140 kg, clean and jerk with 186 kg, and combined with 326 kg.

It’s been over a decade since she won the gold medal, but she’s still been well-respected by other athletes.

In 2013, she established the Jang Miran Foundation to help young athletes in less-popular sports.

Her physique is light and small among female heavyweight weightlifters.

She mentioned that the hardest part was forcing herself to eat to bulk up, and she had to take down 10 steaks at every meal. This sounds great at first, but I’d imagine it would get tedious.

Even at a disadvantage with her physique, she showed overwhelming performances thanks to her tremendous talent and endless effort.

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10. Hak-Seon Yang (양학선)

  • Born: December 6, 1992, Seoul, South Korea
  • Height: 1.59 m
  • Weight: 51 kg

Hak-Seon Yang is a gymnast who specializes in the vault.

He’s the first South Korean gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal at the age of 19.

He got into gymnastics during elementary school, following in the footsteps of his hyung who was a talented sports student.

Raised in poverty, he grew up eating a lot of Neoguri ramyun. To celebrate his gold medal, the ramyun company Nongshim promised to provide a lifetime supply of the instant noodle. (Whenever his mom calls Nongshim, she gets 5-6 boxes of ramyun delivered to her house right away.)

11. Kee-chung Sohn (손기정)

Lingua Asia Kee-chung Sohn
Photo courtesy of the New York Times
  • Born: August 29, 1912, Sinuiju, North Korea
  • Died: November 15, 2002, Seoul, South Korea
  • Height: 1.7 m
  • Weight: 60 kg

The LEGEND Koreans learn about in history class.

Kee-chung Sohn was a pioneer in Korean sports who became the very first athlete to win gold in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Sadly, Korea was under Japanese colonization back then.

In the awards ceremony photo above, you can see Kee-chung Sohn covering up the Japanese flag with a small oak tree, and bronze medalist Sung-yong Nam trying to pull his pants up to hide his.

Despite winning medals at the Olympics, the two young athletes were sad, as they weren’t representing their country. And this broke the hearts of many Koreans.

Also, Kee-chung Sohn met Adolf Hitler the day after receiving the gold medal, having the dubious honor of being the only Korean to officially meet the dictator.

12. Bong-ju Lee (이봉주)

  • Born: November 8, 1970, Seoul, South Korea
  • Height: 1.64 m
  • Weight: 62kg

Bong-ju Lee is a marathoner. He’s a well-respected athlete in Korea for his determination.

He finished 41 marathons during his 19-year career from 1990 to 2009.

Bong-ju Lee changed the national perception of silver medalists.

Before him, Korean newspapers used negative expressions, such as “it was a mere silver“, so throw subtle shade at runner ups. Not to mention many athletes literally cried when taking home a silver medal.

When Bong-ju won a silver medal and was only 3 seconds behind gold, everyone in Korea saw how happy and proud he was.

The media finally started using positive expressions such as “a silver medal that is more valuable than a gold one“, and “a silver medal that shines brighter than a gold medal“.

13. Sungbin Yun (윤성빈)

Born: May 23, 1994, Namhae, South Korea
Height: 1.78 m
Weight: 91 kg

Sungbin Yun’s so hot right now.

As a skeleton racer (it’s like solo bobsledding), he won a gold medal in men’s skeleton at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Sungbin Yun is known for his exceptional athleticism, physique and agility.

As a huge fan of Marvel, Sungbin is famous for his Iron Man-inspired helmet, which makes him look like he’s flying full-speed (he gets a pass).

He’s also the most successful Marvel fan in Korea who got to spend time with Robert Downey Jr. at the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War in Singapore.

Honorable Mention: Korean Archery Team

There’s a saying in Korea that goes, “making the national team is harder than winning an Olympic gold medal”.

Korean archers are so good that they set 12 out of 14 Olympic archery records.

It’s all thanks to the tremendous skill of the archers, fairness and meritocracy of the Korea Archery Association (unlike the Korea Skating Union), and long-time sponsorship of Hyundai Motor Company.

Notable Korean archers are Soo-Nyung Kim, Bo-bae Ki and San An.

Honorable Mention: Faker (이상혁)

Although he’s not a conventional athlete, he plays e-sports, and is freakin’ good at it!

Faker is a South Korean professional League of Legends player for T1.

He’s considered to be the best League of Legends player of all time. This means he has exceptional reflexes, hand-eye coordination, dexterity and strategic thinking.


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