South Korea’s chopstick challenge

While playing computer games is an established career option, getting people interested in athletics is a challenge.

The decision to stage the World Athletics championships in South Korea was all part of an effort to push the sport into a new market.

Track and field has only a small following in the country, not least because no South Korean has ever won a medal at the event.


Apparently the reason for that might have something to do with chopsticks. Let me explain.

Daegu’s Taekyeung University is one of many South Korean seats of learning where sitting down to play computer games is taken very seriously. 

Since 2003 it has had a department dedicated to them. A place where the finger skills of hundreds of teenagers are honed with a serious objective in mind.

Playing E-sports, as they are known, is an established career option. There are lucrative professional leagues for players and television channels provide 24-hour coverage.

“We have a chopstick culture,” explains Professor Lee Seung-hee. “They’ve been used in Korea for thousands of years. Using chopsticks has helped develop the brains and the world-class skills of our game players.” 

Upon entering the internet games department, I’m confronted by a bank of serious-faced students tapping away at their computers.

On all of their monitors is a game called StarCraft. It’s a multi-player strategy game which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

A big screen allows everyone to follow the unfolding virtual drama and there is even a commentator on hand to analyse the action. 

“I  watched E-sport commentators on the TV and wanted to do it myself,” says student Kwon Eun-taek during a brief break in his microphone duties.

“In the future, I want to spread the fun and emotion of E-sports and create a culture where people enjoy them together.”

While that course is oversubscribed, it’s a very different story at the nearby Daegu Physical Education High School.

This is a rare example of a South Korean school where sport is central to the curriculum. Any student keen to do track and field is accepted, because so few apply.

“I’m concerned,” admits the school’s athletic coach, Kim Soo-hyun.

“If youngsters get a taste of something like track and field they’ll fall for it, but here they don’t even have a chance to start. Society is now all about the individual. People do things alone. That’s why they play E-sports.”

Gong Yoo-jung is one of the school’s best athletic prospects. A  relatively rare example of a South Korean student who loves to run kilometres rather than computer programmes.

“My aim in life is to play sport. I do sport because I love it, I have never wanted to play computer games,” said Gong.

” I admit that track and field is unpopular in South Korea and people don’t know much about it.

“But this world championship is a big event and theres’ a lot of publicity, so I hope  people will change their minds.”

Bringing big time athletics to South Korea is part of an ambitious and optimistic push to plug the sport into a new market. 

But turning people here on to track and field and getting them to turn off their computers will not be easy.

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