January 30, 2008 / 10:01 AM / 13 years ago

Stardom at last for Korea's desperate handball housewives

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - A hit movie about the exploits of a few forgotten housewives and an international squabble over Olympic qualifiers has turned the minor sport of women’s handball into a major craze in South Korea.

Based on a true story, “Forever the Moment” stars a group of women in their 30’s who trade families and PTA meetings for the sport, and make a heroic run for gold in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The top film at the box office since its January 10 release, the unlikely epic has made stars of relatively obscure athletes, and has led Seoul to form a new handball team.

“At one extreme, cinemas are packed with people watching the movie about women’s handball and the arena in a country city hosting the actual national championship was pretty much neglected,” said Yoon Jong-jang, director of sports division at the Seoul Metropolitan Government, contrasting the hype with the reality he hopes the film’s popularity will change.

Typically, championship games are lucky to attract 200 spectators with television crews far more interested in covering popular women’s sports such as basketball and volleyball.

Now team members are enjoying the limelight.

Lim O-kyeong, 36, captain of the 2004 team, said since she lived the history, she didn’t expect to well up at the premiere.

“I put on my best mascara because I would be seen with a lot of beautiful actresses, but I still ended up crying and ruining my make-up,” she told the national daily Chosun Ilbo.

Up until the film’s release, women’s handball had been mostly forgotten, despite it being one of the few sports in which South Korea had been competitive, with the national team winning Olympic gold in 1988 and 1992, and silver in 1996.

The 2004 team lost to Denmark in a grueling, extra-time match for the Olympic gold but briefly captured the hearts of nation with its improbable silver-medal run of ageing athletes.

“This is a movie about ‘ajumma’ (or middle-aged women). The story is less about the results of the match but more about the importance of doing their best in the process despite their age and gender,” said Shim Jae-myung who produced the film.

HOLLYWOOD ENDING?

In the real world, men’s and women’s handball in Asia is going through a bitter dispute that has turned the sport to chaos just months ahead of the Olympics.

South Korean and Japan, whose men’s and women’s teams were eliminated in Olympic qualifiers, appealed to the International Handball Federation, complaining to the sport’s governing body that biased officiating cost them spots at the Games and benefited Kuwait and Kazakhstan .

Japan and South Korea won their appeal, and permission for a new set of qualifiers, but were rebuked of the Asian Handball Federation, run by an influential Kuwaiti prince who refused to sanction the replays.

Yet the games for the men and women went on, albeit with a boycott from AHF members Kuwait, Qatar, Kazakhstan and the UAE.

On Tuesday night South Korea’s women beat Japan 34-21 and qualified for Beijing in a game watched by the stars of the movie and thousands of Korean fans who flew to Tokyo to cheer.

“Everything came together coincidentally at the right time. We had the movie, our appeal being won and the rematch. It has all added up to make the sport more popular than it has ever been,” said Koh Byung-hoon of the Korean Handball Federation.

For now, South Korea’s national team are riding high.

But team members wonder if their own Hollywood ending will arrive.

“It seemed like the spectators really showed interest and love for the game for the first time in a while. I hope this isn’t the end and it continues for a while longer,” South Korean handball player Oh Seong-ok told reporters after the match.

Additional reporting by Jessica Kim, Writing by Jon Herskovitz, Editing by Gillian Murdoch

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