Sports cast

Sports cast

At the current 17th Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea, local fans have snapped up tickets to catch Olympic swimming champion Park Tae Hwan and rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon Jae in action - this amid lacklustre sales for other sporting events.

Fans armed with "Go, Park" placards turned up in droves on Sunday to support Park at the men's 200m freestyle swimming event, in which he clinched the bronze.

He collected another bronze for the men's 400m freestyle race on Tuesday.

His celebrity has not remained at the pool - he has parlayed his swimming prowess into popularity in show business, appearing on top television shows such as Running Man.

Indeed, high-profile sporting stars in South Korea are heralded on the same level as showbiz royalty and inspire as much fervour as K-pop stars.

Referring to Park and Olympic ice-skating champion Kim Yuna, Mr Yoon Jaewoong, press and culture counsellor at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Singapore, says: "Park and Kim achieved great success in fields that South Korea has traditionally been weaker in at the Olympics. They brought new hope and pride to Koreans and Koreans treasure them very much."

Mr Michael Jung, head of Korean entertainment cable channel M, says the rise of sporting stars' status in pop culture is a phenomenon which emerged in recent years, when the likes of Kim, Park and former Manchester United football player Park Ji Sung came into prominence.

They are often invited to make guest appearances on TV variety shows and some have even snagged regular gigs.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Choo Sung Hoon, an ethnic Korean based in Japan, and his two-year-old daughter Sarang are regulars on the parenting reality show Return Of Superman.

The father-and-daughter duo are hot property among advertisers, appearing in more than 10 commercials selling everything from cameras to ramen.

Producers and broadcasters are keen to cast national sports stars on TV as they believe it will translate into high ratings, says Mr Yoon.

This is borne out by the observation of Mr Ang Hui Keng, senior vice-president and general manager of Sony Pictures Television Networks, Asia, which operates One, a Korean entertainment cable channel that airs programmes such as Running Man and Roommate.

He says: "We have noticed the trend of Korean athletes making guest appearances in our variety programmes and the episodes featuring them perform relatively well on channel One."

The reason for this may be as simple as the fact that audiences used to seeing athletes in the sporting arena would find it refreshingly amusing to view them in a more lighthearted context, says Nanyang Technological University assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who has research interests in Asian pop culture.

And obviously, telegenic athletes are popular among K-pop fans too, says Mr Ang, who highlights the example of rookie MMA fighter Song Ga Yeon, a regular cast member of housemate reality show Roommate.

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