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.

Similarly, ice-skating queen Kim and "Marine Boy" Park Tae Hwan are "blessed with good looks" on top of their sporting talent, says Mr Jung.

He adds: "No sports star in the past has been able to exude the combination of these qualities - good looks, excellent sporting performance and entertainment talent."

Being competitive athletes, sports stars are in great shape for "physically demanding" variety programmes, says Sony's Mr Ang.

For instance, MMA fighter Choo was a guest star for reality show Law Of The Jungle In Borneo, which challenges celebrity participants to survive in the wilderness.

Sports stars' guest appearances on TV may also be a prelude to a post-sports career.

Prof Liew says: "The careers of many athletes are comparatively short."

Personalities like Kim Yuna retire at an age when most people just join the workforce.

"Hence, for the prominent athletes who have already been well exposed in the media, the crossover to TV seems like a viable option."

The 24-year-old Kim retired from competitive ice skating after snagging a silver medal at the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year.

The most successful sports-turned-TV star has to be Kang Ho Dong, a top Korean traditional wrestler in the 1990s who embarked on his emcee and comedian career in 1999.

Since then, he has helmed a number of top variety shows such as 1 Night 2 Days, Strong Heart and Star King.

Mr Jung says that Kang and Yoo Jae Suk, one of Running Man's hosts, are among the most popular TV variety show hosts now.

While celebrity athletes need more than just their sporting abilities and achievements to be successful in showbusiness, they have an edge over K-pop stars - a wider fanbase.

K-pop idols' fans are found mostly among the younger generation, while sports stars have fans across demographics, says Mr Yoon.

Even those who do not follow Korean popular culture are tuning in to catch sportsmen on variety shows.

The only Running Man episode that Manchester United fan Aaron Tan, 31, caught was an episode featuring football player Park Ji Sung.

Mr Tan, who works in the banking industry, says: "Park doesn't really make appearances on variety shows. You could tell that the celebrity guest and hosts on Running Man were pretty starstruck by him."

Check out the following shows on One (StarHub TV Channels 124, 820 and 823; SingTel mio TV Channels 513 and 604): Star King on Monday at 11.45pm, Law Of The Jungle In Borneo on Thursday at 11.45pm, and Running Man on Friday at 11.45pm.

Return Of Superman airs on KBS World (StarHub TV Channel 115, SingTel mio TV Channel 523) on Sunday at 3.20pm.

Swimmer Park Tae Hwan, 24

Sports career highlights

Park made a splash in 2008 in Beijing when he became the first South Korean to win swimming medals at the Olympics: gold in the 400m freestyle and silver in the 200m freestyle.

He kept up his hot streak at the 2012 London Olympics, winning silver in the same two events.

At the current Incheon Asian Games, tickets to his events are sold out.

TV star charms

As with K-pop stars and actors, the swimming superstar has his countrymen interested in his love life.

He has been teased on Korean talk show Win Win over his admiration for Dara of girl group 2NE1, and has been linked to the pretty lasses of girl groups - Brave Girls' Yejin and Wonder Girls' Sunye. Those rumours turned out to be false.

Apart from appearing in commercials, he has displayed a spontaneity that makes for good TV. He showed off his competitive spirit and sportsmanship on game show Running Man and, on talk show Healing Camp, he openly shared his candid thoughts and feelings.

He even had no qualms playing a salesman to promote health supplements on a home shopping channel.

Ex-Manchester United player Park Ji Sung, 33

Sports career highlights

Park's star skyrocketed in 2005 after he was signed with Manchester United, one of the most popular football clubs in the world, for £4 million from PSV Eindhoven.

While with Manchester United, he won four league titles and one Uefa Champions League trophy.

He also took part in three consecutive Fifa World Cup tournaments (2002, 2006 and 2010), captaining the squad in the last outing.

TV star charms

He was a hit with fans in his first guest appearance on popular game show Running Man in 2012.

The national football hero, a selfprofessed Running Man fan, threw himself wholeheartedly into the insane and inane challenges, and played along with the regular cast members' inside jokes.

He has appeared a few more times on the show last year and this year.

Rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon Jae, 20

Sports career highlights

At her first outing at the London Olympics in 2012, she became the first South Korean rhythmic gymnast to qualify for the all-around finals at the quadrennial sporting event and finished in fifth place.

All Korean eyes are on the agile gymnast's performance at the current Incheon Asian Games.

The Korean public picked Son's competition as the most anticipated event according to a local survey, reported South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.

TV star charms

With her petite frame and sweet face, Son is one of the top candidates on the "wanted list" to star in commercials and TV shows, according to variety show Star Date in 2012.

She has endorsed a gamut of products, from yogurt drinks to shampoo, and has also appeared in popular game shows such as Infinity Challenge and Running Man.

Although her sights are set on a gold medal, one can bet that talent scouts have their sights on her.

Baseball player Ryu Hyun Jin, 27

Sports career highlights

Ryu made headlines when he inked a six-year contract worth US$36 million with the famed American baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 2012.

Before his American outing, he was a top pitcher at home - in 2006, he was the first baseball player to be named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player by the Korea Baseball Organisation in the same season.

He also helped the Korean national team win the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

TV star charms

On this year's Forbes Korea list of top 10 influential celebrities in South Korea, he ranked fourth.

In commercials, he has been seen slurping instant noodles and kneading dough, the latter to promote a bank.

Apart from a cameo appearance in the Korean-China film Mr Go (2013), a movie about a gorilla that plays baseball, he has appeared three times on game show Running Man, once in 2012 and twice last year.

Figure skater Kim Yuna, 24

Sports career highlights

A national heroine, Kim has earned the title of Queen Yuna in the media after her many triumphs in the international ice-skating rink, the most notable of which was the coveted gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.

She bagged a silver medal at the recent Sochi Winter Games in February, then officially said goodbye to competitive skating in May in a televised skating show.

TV star charms

Kim ranked No. 9 on Forbes Korea's list of the top 10 influential celebrities in South Korea this year. The list is reportedly based on factors such as media exposure and advertisement appearance fees.

An advertisers' darling, she has endorsed everything from jewellery to air-conditioners.

She has hosted Kiss & Cry, a figure skating reality show that aired on Korean TV station SBS in 2011. She even sang the show's theme song with singer IU.

To cheer on the South Korean team in the Fifa World Cup 2010, she sang a duet, Smile Boy, with actor-singer Lee Seung Gi, and performed upbeat dance tune The Shouts Of Reds Part 2 in collaboration with BigBang.

Queen Yuna has a star-studded fanbase that will make fangirls drool with envy. Male celebrities such as CNBlue frontman Jung Yong Hwa and boyband MBlaq's Lee Joon have picked her as their ideal girlfriend.

This article was first published on Sept 25, 2014.
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