By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 3 (Yonhap) -- It was the most unusual of sights: South Korean Olympic athletes laughing and having fun as they trained for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games about three months away.
Such was the light-hearted nature of the practice for the national taekwondo fighters last Wednesday, when the countdown to the Rio Olympics reached 100 days. The Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) organized a media day at the National Training Center in Seoul, with coaches and medal hopefuls attending a press conference and athletes engaging in open training sessions.
In a sporting culture steeped in the tradition of rigorous, serious training held under the "do-or-die" mantra, you'd normally be hard pressed to hear any laughter or see smiles from Olympic athletes.
Yet here was Kim Tae-hun, who will compete in the men's 58kg division, trading easy punches and kicks with his coach Jung Gwang-chae, in one of several "what-me-worry" moments of the day on the court.
Actually, it was Jung doing the majority of the kicking and punching, with some tickling thrown in, as Kim was barely able to stop smiling.
Park Jong-man, the national team head coach, said he understands the pressure his athletes often deal with in competitions. South Korea is the birthplace of taekwondo, and it has grabbed 10 gold medals and 14 medals overall at the Olympics, more than any other nation.
With such a strong track record, it's usually considered a disappointment when a South Korean fails to win a taekwondo gold at the Olympics. Park said his job is to lighten the weight on his charge as much as he can.
"I hate it when our athletes win silver or bronze medals and then apologize before camera," Park said. "Why should they feel bad about finishing second or third? As long as they know they've given their best and spectators saw them do their best, then that's more than enough."
Park said in order to help the athletes shake off the weight of expectations, he wanted to make daily practices more enjoyable for them.
"I've told them to regard the practice gym as their playground, and the electronic vests (for scoring) as their toys," Park said. "In the past, maybe you couldn't hear them laughing around here. But I keep telling them to have fun. You can't compete at the Olympics without enjoying your sport."
Of course, these athletes don't just laugh their days away. Kim Tae-hun, at 21, is a strong gold medal favorite, having already bagged two world titles, one Asian title and one Asian Games gold medal over the past three years.
Kim will be competing in his first Summer Games, and he admitted he will likely feel more nervous at the Olympics than at any of his previous competitions.
"I think my first match will be the most difficult one," he said. "I may find myself rushing everything, and perhaps I won't be able to compete to the best of my ability. But if I can get over the early hump, then I think the Olympics will go smoothly the rest of the way."
Kim said it has helped to have young assistant coaches to keep the mood light in practices. And though there's much more parity in taekwondo now, Kim said he believes South Koreans still have a competitive edge.
"As strong as others have become, I think we're still better in fundamentals," he said. "I also think we are better conditioned."
South Korean taekwondo fighter Kim Tae-hun (L) lands a kick during the quarterfinals of the men's 58kg division at the National Sports Festival in Taebaek, Gangwon Province, in this file photo taken on Oct. 22, 2015. (Yonhap)
Count Lee Dae-hoon, in the men's 68kg division, as another athlete feeling great about himself. He won silver in the 58kg class at the 2012 London Olympics, where his battle to keep his weight down was well documented. Though Lee had a distinctive size advantage in the sport's lightest division, he didn't have quite the power because of his diet.
Lee said he decided after London that he would never again take such rigorous steps to compete in flyweight. Now in lightweight, Lee may be smaller than some of his competition, but he said he feels he can now fight at full strength.
And the comfort of knowing that he won't have to lose so much weight again has given Lee some fresh perspective.
"I have no memory of London other than starving myself and trying to keep my weight down," Lee said with a smile. "Now, I think I've improved myself as an athlete, and it's afforded me a peace of mind to look at my surroundings and feel grateful for the opportunity to compete at another Olympics."
Like Kim Tae-hun, Lee has bagged multiple titles from the world championships, Asian championships and the Asian Games. An Olympic gold will be sweet icing on the cake, but Lee said he won't be too caught up with the color of the medal.
For the 24-year-old, having fun is also important.
"I am just happy to have the opportunity to get to my second Olympics, and as long as I enjoy myself and perform the way I always have, the result will take care of itself.
"But I still want to win as much as anyone," Lee continued. "I just want to make sure I won't miss anything just because of the pressure to finish in first place."