Naturalized athletes aiming to fulfill Olympic dream in Tokyo

Marathon runner Oh Joo-han crosses the finish line during the 2019 Gyeongju International Marathon in this file photo. Yonhap
Marathon runner Oh Joo-han crosses the finish line during the 2019 Gyeongju International Marathon in this file photo. Yonhap


By Kwak Yeon-soo

As the Tokyo Olympics’ motto “unity in diversity” says, there are five naturalized athletes across four sports who are competing for Korea in the 2020 Games.

Out of 233 athletes representing Team Korea, only two percent are naturalized. Of the five naturalized athletes, two are part of the women’s table tennis team and one each are competing in the men’s marathon event, men’s rugby sevens and women’s basketball tournament.

The “special naturalization” program was introduced in 2010, which allows qualified athletes to hold dual citizenship.

Marathon runner Oh Joo-han (Wilson Loyanae Erupe), whose Korean name translates into “I run for Korea,” is a strong medal contender in the Tokyo Olympics. Born in Kenya, Oh acquired Korean citizenship in August 2018.

Hopes are high for Oh to win a medal at the running event, scheduled for Aug. 8, and provide a much-needed boost for Korea’s marathon, which has stagnated in recent years.

“My coach Oh Chang-seok, who unexpectedly passed away in May, always encouraged me to win an Olympic medal. I plan to do my best so I can dedicate my medal to him,” Oh said in previous interviews.

Marathon runner Oh Joo-han crosses the finish line during the 2019 Gyeongju International Marathon in this file photo. Yonhap
Rugby player Kim Jin, left, falls on his knees during the men’s rugby sevens tournament against Argentina at Tokyo Stadium in Tokyo, July 27. Korea lost 0-56 to Argentina. Yonhap


On the men’s rugby sevens team, Kim Jin (Andre Jin Coquillard) identifies himself as a “prototypical Korean.” Born to a Korean mother and an American father in 1991, Kim is the first player on the men’s rugby sevens team to have earned Korean citizenship through naturalization.

Kim started playing rugby while studying in Canada in 2006 at the age of 15. The athlete earned Korean citizenship in August 2017 and has played a key role in getting Team Korea to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

However, Korea finished the lowest after losing 5-50 to New Zealand, 5-42 to Australia, 0-56 to Argentina, 0-31 to Ireland and 19-31 to Japan. Rugby sevens was removed from the Olympics after the 1924 Games in Paris, but made a comeback at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“Even if for just one day, I wanted to raise the Korean national flag up here at Tokyo Stadium. I am devastated that I never got to do it,” Kim told reporters after playing Japan in the 11th-12th placement match, Wednesday.

Marathon runner Oh Joo-han crosses the finish line during the 2019 Gyeongju International Marathon in this file photo. Yonhap
Table tennis player Jeon Ji-hee plays a women’s singles round 3 match against France’s Yuan Jia Nan at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, July 27. Jeon won 4-3. Yonhap


Korea has two naturalized table tennis players from China ― Jeon Ji-hee (Tian Minwei) and Choi Hyo-joo (Yao Yao).

Jeon, who had represented her homeland at the youth level, moved to Korea in 2008 and gained Korean citizenship in 2011. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Jeon was eliminated in round 16 in the women’s singles tournament and in the quarterfinals in the women’s team event.

At the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, she lost to Japan’s Mima Ito, who won the gold medal in the mixed doubles table tennis and was defeated 4-0 in the quarterfinals of the women’s singles tournament. However, she will participate in the women’s team event, scheduled for Aug. 1.

Choi, previously a Chinese national, obtained Korean citizenship in 2014. She is set to compete in the women’s team event alongside Jeon and Shin Yu-bin. Choi won the bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games in the women’s team event.

Marathon runner Oh Joo-han crosses the finish line during the 2019 Gyeongju International Marathon in this file photo. Yonhap
Basketball player Jin An, center, makes a shot in this 2020 file photo. Korea Times file


Basketball player Jin An (Xu Xiao Tung) is originally from Taiwan, but became a naturalized Korean citizen in 2013. She was part of the national team at the 2015 U19 World Championships.

Jin belatedly joined the national team after Kim Han-byul (Kimberley Roberson), a naturalized athlete from the U.S. withdrew due to a wrist injury. The Korean women’s basketball team lost 69-73 to Spain, 53-74 to Canada and is set to play against Serbia on Aug. 1.

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