Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Valencia Sailing talks to Dong Young Kim, founder of the Korea Match Cup

Driving from Seoul's Incheon airport to Jeongok Marina, 70 km south of Korea's capital and on the country's west coast, one would never expect to find the world's top match racers battling off the coast of the industrial heartland and economic center of this Asian dragon. The cities of Seoul, Incheon and the Gyeonggi province that surrounds them concentrate half the population and GDP of Korea and are the world's largest producers of memory chips and LCD displays, among other top positions. Due to the efforts of Dong Young Kim, founder of the Korea Match Cup, and Moon-Soo Kim, governor of the Gyeonggi Province, in just 3 years it also went from a complete unknown in the sport of sailing to holding a top tier event.

Dong Young Kim was a Laser sailor during his university years and after graduating he sensed the need to further study and acquire sailing knowhow. What better place to do that than New Zealand? Kim spent four years in Auckland working as a boatbuilder in the superyacht industry, not only getting acquainted with the world's highest technologies in the country with the most extensive sailing tradition in the world, he also had the "luck and unique opportunity", as he stated, to live from very close, two editions of the America's Cup, in 2000 and 2003. During those four years he also got to meet some of New Zealand's top sailors, something that would prove very useful a few years later.

However, the most important lesson from the four years Kim spent in Auckland was that he realized there was no reason at all why his home country couldn't organize top-notch sailing events. Not only would it develop the sport of sailing, it could also help develop a local sailing industry and be used as a tourist attraction. In 2007, Kim went to Valencia for the 32nd America's where he was introduced to Craig Mitchell, director of the World Match Sailing Tour, and started the preliminary discussions on the possibility of organizing a Tour event in Korea.

Moon-Soo Kim, governor of the Gyeonggi Province, helms Paolo Cian's boat during the Korea Match Cup ProAm regatta. Gyeonggi, 8 June 2010. Photo copyright World Match Racing Tour

If sailing in general is considered a niche sport in the crushing majority of countries worldwide, in Korea in particular, Kim had to fight an uphill battle. If in most countries people still confuse the bow and the stern of a yacht or get mixed up with port and starboard, in Korea, as Kim jokingly pointed out, in his initial talks with potential sponsors and authorities he had to explain what a sailing yacht was. Korean sports are dominated by soccer and baseball while sailing is still at an embryonic stage.

Yet, Dong Young Kim found a strong ally in Moon-Soo Kim, governor of the Gyeonggi Province, who had also visited Valencia in 2007 to watch the America's Cup and saw in the World Match Racing events the perfect tool to showcase his provinces efforts to diversify its economy and portray itself as a sailing and tourist destination. With a coastline of more than 250km, the Gyeonggi province aims to becomes Asia's top marine leisure destination by 2020.

As a result, in less than a year after their meetings in Valencia, Dong Young Kim's vision became reality and the inaugural edition of the Korea Match Cup took place in 2008 in the purpose-built Jeongok Marina. The Korea Match Cup has also invested in a fleet of new 36-foot Bakewell-White-designed KM 36s built locally in Hwaseong City by Advanced Marine Tech. The boats are the first racing yacht to be built and sailed in Korea.

Dong Young Kim, founder of the Korea Match Cup, onboard Paolo Cian's boat during the Korea Match Cup ProAm regatta. Gyeonggi, 8 June 2010. Photo copyright World Match Racing Tour

According to Dong Young Kim, a total of 300,000 spectators visited the brand new race village during the 5-day event in 2008, a number that has been more or less constant in 2009 and 2010, despite the unrelated circumstances such as the prohibition to promote the event last month during the local pre-election period. With a pool of 22 million people, of which 11 million just in Seoul, 50 kilometers away, the event has the potential to become a major sports attraction.

As Korea becomes more of a leisure society, for example through the implementation of the 5-day working week a few years ago, sailing gained popularity. This was clearly reflected in this year's qualifying event, a month ago. Out of a total of 12 teams, the organization had set a limit of 6 from Korea and for the first time they had to face the "problem" of dropping 3 of the 9 local applicants. Although we are still in the very early stages, there is no reason why the future of sailing in Asia in general and in Korea in particular can't be bright.

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