From August 19 to September 2, the finest athletes all over Asia completed fiercely in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia. Like many sports events, this multi-sports event, which is held every four years, brought a mix of emotions from athletes to the citizens of the competing nations.

While the Asian Games is not considered as prestigious as the Olympics, competing and winning the Asian Games hold a special meaning for male athletes in Korea. For many, this is their best chance to be exempted from the mandatory national military service. Korea finished the tournament with a somewhat satisfactory result. It won 48 Gold, 57 Silver, and 68 Bronze Medals, coming in 3rd in overall medal counts. While 3rd place in an excellent place to be, Korea had consistently placed 1st or 2nd in the tournament, making it the first ranking drop in 24 years.

 

Here were few memorable moments from the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games:

1) E-Sports

For the first time in history, E-Sports became an official sport at the Asian Games. While only a demonstration program, this was significant since most parts of the world often hold negative perceptions on computer games, believing that it leads to nothing good other than various mental and physical problems. However, by recognizing Computer Games as E-Sports, it showed that the world’s views are changing. In fact, it is one of the most popular genres of competition in the world. According to the research conducted by ESPN, almost 15 million people worldwide had watched the League of Legends final in 2017. In addition, like many other sports, E-Sport Athletes put in countless hours of practice to perfect their skills and to become best at what they do.

In the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games, six video games (Arena of Valor, Clash Royale, Hearthstone, League of Legends, Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 and StarCraft 2) were featured in the demonstration event of E-Sports. Among the featured games, many were sure that South Korea and it undefeated League of Legend Team would win the gold medal. Unfortunately, China took the medal by surprise, leaving Team Korea with second place.

2) Soccer

The most talked about competition in the 2018 Asian Games was no doubt soccer. Typically, even a soccer fanatic does not take much interest in Asian Games since the athletes competing in the games are under 23 and the games are not as interesting as the World Cup or the Olympics. However, this year was definitely different. This year’s game was to determine whether Son Heung Min, an international soccer star, would have to trade his 99.8 million Euros for a 100 Euro per month to serve in Korea’s military for almost two years. Besides the ridiculous salary cut, his vacancy would also mean the end of his soccer career in Europe. Thus, with the fate of Song Heung Min on the line, winning the gold medal was crucial.

The start was a little rough. Shockingly, Korea lost to Malaysia by 2-1 in the group preliminaries along with the chance to advance as first place in Group E. This loss was significant because now Korea now had to compete against the first-place winners from the other Groups. Fortunately, Korea fought its way to the Finals, defeating Iran, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

In the Finals, Korea met its long-time rival Japan. With military exemption and national pride on the line, the Finals became the game that the team must win. As soon as the whistle blew, Korea took on an aggressive tactic, pouring massive attack against its opposing team. However, with Japan taking on a defensive strategy, it was difficult to make a finish. The 90-minute game ended without a goal and the players went onto play 30-minute overtime. If Korea could not strike a goal in 30 minutes, it meant that the game would go onto penalty shoot-out; it was definitely a situation that the team did not want to be in. When the extra time began, the players once more poured out their heart and soul. As a result, Lee Seung Woo and Hwang Hee Chan, with assistance from Son Heung Min, both scored marvelous goals. While Japan also scored a goal shortly afterward, the time had run out on them and Korea was named the champion.

3) Baseball

Just like soccer, military service exemption meant a great deal for the baseball players. With its best squad, no one doubted that Korea, two-time defending champion, would take home the gold. While the team lost to Chinese Taipei at the preliminary round, it managed to advance to the final and meet its long-time rival Japan. Similar to soccer, the fate of military exemption as well as the rivalry against Japan gave them the necessary motivation to win the game. Korea made its three points in the first three innings, and its staunch defense did not give Japan a single point. Still, many were not appreciative of the result and their victory was not looked upon kindly as it did for soccer. In fact, many Koreans fans thought it would be humiliating if Korea lost to Japanese National Team, consisted of only Amateur players.

Unlike most teams competing in the Asian Games, Korea National Team was only made up of professional players. This kind of line up is unorthodox since most countries send amateur athletes, rarely pros, to Asian Games to help them gain experience. In fact, many Korean fans were unhappy when the final line-up of the team came out before the start of the tournament. Additionally, many felt that some players were included not because of their skills but to simply avoid military service. Because of this, many even wanted the team to earn silver so they would not be exempted from the service. Thus, despite their gold win, the baseball team was and continues to be defenseless in the eyes of the public.

The 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games has ended. While many are satisfied with the results, there is also a bitter feeling. Somehow, the Asian Games has become a battleground for military exemption for male athletes. Unlike many countries, it is not a place to raise the next generation of athletes. Instead, it is a playground for professional players who wish to compete for their benefits. Similarly, fans are only hyped up about the most controversial sports such as men soccer and baseball. As result, unpopular sports such as cycle, Sepak Takro, or diving fail to win public attention and most matches were not even broadcasted.

In a way, the obsession with the military exemption is both a motivating and also a debilitating factor in the advancement of sports in Korea. Unless Korea can free itself from this obsession, Asian Games will always be a place for controversy and not a place for athletes.