Photo: Kim Yeon-gyeong (right) cheers on her team. Credit: Samsung Mobile.
Even though the team failed to medal, the fourth place finish by the women’s volleyball team was the biggest Olympics story for South Korea in the second week of the Tokyo Olympics. The team had all the right ingredients for a sports drama: a team overcoming crisis, a string of unlikely victories against key rivals, and a likeable superstar in Kim Yeon-gyeong 김연경, who pushed her team to become greater than the sum of its parts.
The journey of the Team Korea women’s volleyball team began with an ugly scandal, as major players Lee Jae-yeong 이재영 and Lee Da-yeong 이다영 - who are twin sisters - were dropped from the national team after a whistleblower revealed that they engaged in severe and sustained bullying of their teammates during their school years, including putting a knife to a fellow player’s throat at one point. With the twins gone, South Korea’s women’s volleyball team came in 15th out of 16 participants in the 2021 FIVB Nations League held in June 2021, portending a poor result in the Olympics that began just a month later.
But Kim Yeon-gyeong’s heroics pulled the team together. The 33 year old (whose official English language spelling is Kim Yeon-koung because of a spelling error on her passport that she never bothered to change) is considered among the world’s best: “Body of Russia, power of United States, the technique like Japan and quickness of Brazil, all in one player” and “greater than Lionel Messi in terms of volleyball” according to Giovanni Guidetti, head coach of the Turkish women’s national team. After taking her team to the semifinals and winning MVP in the 2012 London Olympics, the 192 cm (6’ 3”) outside hitter was hunting for a medal in what would be her last Olympics, and would not let adversity stand in her way.
Repeating her mantra, “One Team” 원팀, for her teammates, Kim led the team through a string of upsets to reach the semifinals: a five-setter against Dominican Republic, a come-from-behind victory against the hated rival Japan in which Team Korea defended and overcame Japan’s 2 match points in the fifth set, and a dig-deep victory against the world’s No. 4 team Turkey.
In the quarterfinal match against Turkey, Kim did it all in offense and defense, scoring the match-high 28 points and digging (or defending spikes) 16 times, more frequently than the players whose sole task is defense. Inspired by Kim, her teammates Park Jeong-ah 박정아, Yeom Hye-seon 염혜선 and Kim Hee-jin 김희진 ably filled the gap of the missing players, thrilling the Korean public that celebrated them regardless of whether they medaled.