A Korea Republic legend; an athlete renowned for his incredible speed and movement; on Saturday 1st October 1988, Yoo Namkyu wrote his name indelibly into the history books of sport.
He won men’s singles gold at the Seoul Olympic Games, the 24th Olympiad of the modern era, the first occasion when table tennis had been included in the prestigious multi-sport gathering.
Born on Tuesday 4th June 1968, Yoo Namkyu was taken with table tennis at a very early age. However, his parents wanted him to focus on education and find a permanent job.
“I told them, if you don’t let me play table tennis, I’ll become a boxer!’” Yoo Namkyu
Such a vocation would have been taboo for Yoo’s parents; boxing in Korea Republic is considered a particularly blood ridden and dangerous sport. So, at 10 years old he took to the tables and never left.
Winning his first few school tournaments with utmost ease, he was soon securing victories against much older boys. Quickly he entered the international stage, making his first appearance at the 1983 Asian Junior and Cadet Championships. He won the junior boys’ singles and junior boys’ doubles events.
Standing at 165 centimetes, weighing 59 kilogrammes, he was made for pace, his footwork was his trademark – a standard he set for a certain Ryu Seungmin. A consistent forehand but with strong blocking on the backhand, using same side of the racket Yoo was always very positive with his strokes – one of the best in that department.
However his undoubted strength was service and first attack.
Glory at the global stages
Playing for the Ängby club in Sweden in 1986, his talents were out in the open for all to see and admire, his form helped gain a place in the Asian Games in Seoul, where he recorded a stunning men’s singles gold.
He beat China’s Hui Jun in the final having earlier ousted another Chinese – and reigning World champion – Jiang Jialiang. It was just the confidence boost he needed for the 1988 Olympic Games, in addition to his incredible willpower.
“I trained twice as hard for the Seoul Olympic Games” Yoo Namkyu
A very quietly spoken, incredibly well mannered, patient and respectful athlete, Yoo was determined but never boastful about his targets that he wanted to achieve.
Achieve them he did – with class. Often considered one of the best doubles’ players of all time, this accolade stuck to him because of the two consecutive years of glory at the highest levels. Alongside Ahn Jaehyung, Yoo won the men’s doubles gold medal at the 1987 United States Open; this, he would following even better.
Seoul 1998 Olympic Games
At the 1988 Olympic Games, in addition to the men’s singles title, he partnered Ahn Jaehyung to men’s doubles gold.
In the men’s singles, there were eight groups in the first stage, eight players in each group; players in first and second places progressed to the main draw. Eight tables were used.
“As the competition got underway I paid no attention to what was taking place on other tables, to the ups and downs of the favourites. I concentrated on my next match and that proved to be good. I agreed with my coach on tactics. Only after I entered the main tournament with seven consecutive wins I noted more and more players and coaches rallying round my table. It was a sign that all of a sudden everybody started to consider me a serious competitor.” Yoo Namkyu
On his way to the final, he beat Sweden’s Jörgen Persson and Erik Lindh; then compatriot Kim Kaitaek despite losing the first game. The supporters seeing two South Koreans in the final were ecstatic and their ensuing battle brought them even more pleasure.
“Some of the players failed make it through the qualifications, Saito, the young European hopes Rosskopf, Gatien, Saive, Mazunov and unfortunately my national team mate Kim Wan.” Yoo Namkyu
Both Yoo and Kim were pen-holders, users of one side of the racket only, true to the best Korean traditions but Kim Kaitaek was the last to use short pimples.
Established table tennis
He did not know it at the time but the athletic way Yoo played, he enthralled then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, as did the efforts of Chen Jing in the women’s singles. In the 1988 Olympic Games the sport of table tennis was to some extent on a test-basis. Samaranch had no doubt about the value of the sport and was 100 per cent in favour of it’s entry into the event; this helped cement the sport.
Throughout his campaign to the gold medal, Yoo Namkyu motivated himself after winning every point by saying “Ossa, Ossa!”. The crowd responded with “Hindera, Hindera!” which roughly translated to “Forward, Forward!”
“The Olympic gold made me rich; ever since I have been getting US$ 3,000 each month as a reward , paid of course by my sponsor Dongh Ah Insurance Company, I now live in Seoul in a 200 metre square apartment. I shall never forget my coaches: Kwon Taw Lip, Sung Yong Jea and Yoon Kil Hyung. I also learned a lot from my first doubles partner Ahn Jaehyung.” Yoo Namkyu
The years on from Seoul did not stop the medals coming the way of Yoo. In 1989, he won the mixed doubles gold at the World Championships in Dortmund partnering Hyun Junghwa. He also remains the only athlete to have won the Men’s Doubles World Cup on the two occasions the tournament was staged, in 1990 in Seoul and 1992 in Las Vegas. On each occasion he partnered Kim Taeksoo. During this period he also secured the bronze medal in the men’s doubles at the 1992 Olympic Games, again with Kim Taeksoo.
Currently the head coach of South Korea’s national women’s team, Yoo has a particular athlete he is most looking forward to seeing progress; his daughter, Yoo Yerin started out even earlier than her father and has been dominating in the junior singles’ events at the national stage. The win at the 2018 National Elementary School Championship in North Gyeongsang made Yoo happier than he had ever been.
“I was happier than when I won gold at the Olympic Games!” Yoo Namkyu
Training together once or twice a week, Yoo is staying healthy. One wonders is the legend training a future legend?