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Time, effort and money help South Korea rule obscure sports

From right; South Korean archers Choi Mi-sun, Ki Bo-bae, Chang Hye-jin, Lee Seung-yun, Kim Woo-jin and Ku Bon-chan pose with their gold medals after returning from the Rio Olympics at the Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. South Korean archers returned home on Tuesday after a successful Rio Olympics campaign in which they won all archery categories, the feat that was achieved for the first time in the Olympics history.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

South Korea's women won the Olympic team archery title – for the eighth time in a row. Jin Jong-oh, meanwhile, took gold in the men's 50-metre pistol in Rio de Janeiro – for the third straight Games.

Some in the small Asian country have an easy, long-cherished explanation for the success: The nation is simply better than everyone else at doing the little things, the things that require laser-like concentration on a small, sometimes tedious and hard-to-master skill.

But South Korea's domination in some of the smaller Olympic sports can more accurately be linked to a decades-long concentration of time, effort and money, often sponsored by the government, on training and nurturing athletes from a very young age in these specialized sports; this, in turn, has created intense competition among athletes who know that success will win them serious benefits.

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Still, the perception of an innate national facility for these sports lingers, even among the athletes.

The woman seen as partly responsible for the archery boom in South Korea, Kim Jin-ho, won the country's first archery gold in an international sporting event in 1978. She said she and her teammates always assumed that Koreans had a special level of sensitivity that allowed them to shoot arrows more accurately than their Western rivals.

Like much about modern South Korea, its tumultuous modern history plays a part in its supremacy in these sports.

Until democracy finally came in the late 1980s, South Korea was ruled by dictators who wanted to use sports as a way to promote a strong national identity and generate loyalty.

So the authoritarian government pumped money into programs for athletes who had better chances of winning medals, often in these lesser-known sports, rather than building up an overall sports infrastructure for the general public. Those selected athletes trained together at government-run facilities and were awarded benefits such as good pensions and, for the men, exemptions from mandatory military service if they performed well in international competitions such as the Olympics.

As athletes in those sports succeeded internationally, the sports got more public attention. More popularity meant more steady civilian and business sponsorships. This meant more money, better training facilities and more young athletes taking up and sticking with the sports.

That system is still largely in place. Hence the success.

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"I doubt that South Koreans are exclusively gifted with a delicacy of skill that produces real changes in competition," said Roh Hee-tae, a physical education professor at South Korea's Dong-A University.

South Korea began seriously investing in archery in the late 1970s, reacting to public excitement created when Kim won.

The training and investment have grown tremendously in the years since.

Kim, now 55 and a professor with Seoul's Korea National Sport University, said South Korean archers today benefit from stronger financial and administrative support and a larger number of state-of-the-art training facilities. She said that South Korean coaches do a better job than their counterparts in other countries at finding the right training methods and motions for each archer based on their physical traits and shooting style.

There is growing popular recognition that all athletes, regardless of where they're from, must focus intensely on the little details to win. Still, the idea of Korean superiority persists.

"Some of my colleagues joked the other day that if you took a K-pop singer, in her first try she would be able to shoot arrows more accurately than most archers from other countries," said Hong In-he, a 37-year-old office worker in Seoul. "South Koreans are better in areas that require accurate and delicate skills."

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