BTS, Parasite, Psy, now the South Korean women's handball team are 'Hollywood' history makers too

The South Korean women's handball team has qualified for a record 10th straight Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020, and they draw inspiration from 2004 'Hollywood heroes'. Read our Ryu Eun-hee exclusive here. 

By Ken Browne ·

BTS are the biggest boyband in the world, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite became the first-ever non-English-language film to win an Oscar for best picture, and who can forget the King of K-Pop - Psy's Gangnam Style that topped charts in more than 30 countries.

The 'Korean Wave' has stolen the show on a cultural global stage this decade, and K-Sport is doing the same.

Son Hueng-min is killing it at Tottenham football club, You Young is following Yuna Kim to figure skating glory, and Choi Ji-man and Choo Shin-soo are the latest in a long list of Korean big hitters to make it to baseball's Major League.

The South Korean women's handball team is another of Korea's most successful international exports, the women's handball team is their most successful Olympic team sport in history.

But despite Olympic gold medals at Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992, a silver medal at Athens 2004, women's handball still hadn't received the recognition it deserved.

It took the silver screen to change that, for one important moment at least.

In 2004 the team led by Olympic legend Oh Seong-ok made it to the gold medal final. Sure, they lost on a penalty shoot-out to Denmark, but a movie about the ageing team's heroic run called “Forever the Moment” became a box-office hit.

The film topped the charts for three weeks ahead of Disney's Enchanted, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, and 'Godzilla meets Blair Witch' flick Cloverfield.

The film brought the sport of handball to the fore while examining and critiquing the role of women in the country, particularly 'ajumma' or married and middle-aged women.

As much about empowerment as handball, the movie brought the story a group of women deemed too old to achieve anything at the Olympics to a national stage and and took handball a little closer to the hearts of the Korean people.

They were dubbed by some in the international media as 'Korea's Desperate Housewives'.

Now, ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, South Korea's new generation of women's handball stars has qualified for their tenth Olympics in-a-row. No other handball team - men's or women's - has ever managed that.

"I want to win a medal because there was no medal at the London or Rio Olympics," star right back Ryu Eun-Hee tells Olympic Channel.

South Korea handball team at Tokyo 2020

Eun-Hee had two dreams in handball: To play in Europe and win an Olympic medal.

Realising one half of that dream, she now plays her handball at French club Paris 92. Nicknamed simply 'The Queen', Ryu was part of the team which narrowly missed out on Olympic bronze at London 2012, falling to Spain after extra time.

Now she's eyeing the podium at Tokyo 2020.

In an article titled 'Korea's Ryu making waves in Europe', the 29-year-old Ryu told the IHF about her Olympic inspiration:

"When I was a middle school student, I watched the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and there was a part of that, watching the Korea players and team, which motivated me, and I want to continue the achievements of my seniors.”

While Korea didn't have a dream World Championships in 2019, finishing 11th, Ryu was outstanding scoring 69 goals, second only to Netherlands eventual world champ and tournament top scorer Lois Abbingh, who scored 71.

Ryu called it a "good tournament despite many players with little experience."

There is a steady stream of talent coming through like 2018 junior Worlds MVP Song Hye-soo, and 24-year-old Kang Eun-hee who Ryu says is one to watch for the future.

Song led the junior U-20 team to bronze over a strong Russian team spearheaded by star player Elena Mihaylichenko.

"The current generation gives me hope for a good sporting future for this team," coach Kang Jae-won told Handball World News during the tournament.

They may have finished 11th at the Japan 2019 Worlds where the Netherlands won their first ever world champs, but don't write Korea out of contention yet.

They always bring their A-game to the Olympics and haven't just qualified ten times, they've made it to the medal matches at every single Olympics from LA 1984 to London 2012.

The team's medal account weighs in at: Two gold, three silver and a bronze medal, and they finished fourth four times.

A brief history of Korean handball

While South Korea lead the world in Olympic archery and Korean martial art taekwondo, handball is by far the country's best team sport at the Games.

Women's handball has featured at the Summer Games since Montreal 1976 and South Korea has made the medal matches in eight of the 11 Olympics so far:

LA 1984 (silver), Seoul 1988 (gold), Barcelona 1992 (gold), Atlanta 1996 (silver), Sydney 2000 (fourth), Athens 2004 (silver), Beijing 2008 (bronze), London 2012 (fourth).

Ryu says that her favourite Olympic memory is the team's victory over Russia in the quarter-finals at London 2012.

Yes, Rio 2016 was disappointing with the team finishing 10th, but Tokyo 2020 presents another golden opportunity.

Ryu Eun-hee battles between France's Paule Baudouin and Mariama Signate at London 2012. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

But despite many successes, Ryu also says that the sport is fighting for its place in her country:

"The Korean handball league is not very popular," she tells Olympic Channel, "I think it is less popular than football, basketball, and baseball. However, I think the sisters who get results despite the circumstances are great."

She has some ideas about how to improve the sport's profile back home.

"Korea starts handball 9~10 years old, and it will be helpful to get closer to the ball from early childhood."

And how would she convince more girls and young women to take up the sport?

"Handball has its own charm. If you actually watch it, you can feel the speed and struggle. Why not first try the experience at the stadium?"

South Korea must be doing something right, however, as time and time again they turn up and take over at international competitions.

Team South Korea celebrates winning the gold medal at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

South Korean handball style

South Korean players and coaches have developed a style all of their own over time, overcoming a height disadvantage with speed, skill, fast breaks, precision shooting from distance and defensive discipline.

Innovations like 1.62m (5'3) left back Song Hye-soo's bounce shot are also part of what she calls "Korean style."

The bounce shot is one of the most difficult techniques to master, attacking straight up the middle to throw the ball under pressure from the heavily-guarded centre position, bouncing and spinning the ball right in front of the goal keeper to deceive them.

Song scored four goals in one game using this technique at the U18- World Cup in Slovakia in 2018, but for her it's just another tool in the Korean kit.

"It is not a special technique for us, I would call it Korean style," she told Handball World News at the tournament.

"We are not tall and have to find other ways of scoring."

Best Korean handball players ever

Four Korean players have won the coveted IHF World Handball Player of the Year Awards playing the Korean way:

Kim Hyun-mee (1989) and Lim O-kyeong (1996) on the women's side with current Korean national team coach Kang Jae-won (1989) and Yoon Kyung-shin (2001) winning the men’s equivalent.

And it's impossible to talk about Korean handball without stressing the brilliance of five-time Olympian Oh Seong-ok.

The first Korean woman to play at five Olympic Games, Oh won gold at Barcelona 92, silver at Atlanta 96 and Athens 2004, and bronze at Beijing 2008.

This pioneer of the sport also played in Europe for Hypo in Austria from 2006-2010.

It took almost ten years for another Korean star to follow her lead at a European club, Ryu Eun-Hee joining Paris 92 for the 2019/20 season.

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Olympic legacy

Ryu arrived in France as the 2018/19 Korean League MVP after a stellar season for the Seoul Sugar Sliders, but it took time to settle in at her new club.

“Matches in Europe are a lot more physical and faster than Korea,” she said, "in France training seemed like it was actually playing a game."

But it wasn't long before she found her feet and got about doing her favourite thing: bursting the onion bag with goals.

And as far as life goals go, she's pretty sure of them too:

"I want to raise my game and stay injury-free so that I can be helpful in the Olympics, and if possible, I want to challenge for the Champions League with Paris 92."

Now that Tokyo 2020 has been put back a year due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Ryu has been back in Busan training and is even more focussed on what she wants to achieve, well-aware of the history of her nation on the ultimate stage.

Tokyo awaits the next chapter of K-Sport and a new generation keen on leaving their own legacy.