Retired Olympian Im Dong Hyun re-emerges as men’s coach for Korea

Im Dong Hyun

Two-time Olympic team gold medallist Im Dong Hyun quietly retired in 2021.

But he’ll be back at the Olympic Games – his fourth – this summer, only this time he’ll be standing behind the shooting line rather than astride it.

He’s followed in the footsteps of other successful Korean internationals like Oh Kyo-Moon in going from Olympian to Olympic coach. To the role, Im brings experience, he brings knowledge – and he also brings a hefty piece of unfinished business.

“I want to go to the Olympics as a coach and win the men’s individual gold medal I couldn’t achieve as an athlete,” he says.

That empty space in his trophy cabinet is one of the few blips in one of the most quietly successful international careers of all time.

He never quite garnered the attention of his contemporaries – like Olympic winners Oh Jin Hyek or the powerhouse women’s line-ups – but he has been perhaps the most significant contributor to the Korean men’s international results since the start of the millennium.

Despite it being the toughest team to make in the world, Im Dong Hyun was a member of Korea’s squad for 18 long years.

Every single year, Im had to prove his worth through a series of difficult trials against experienced peers and an annual parade of incredibly talented (and hungry) youth archers.

The period remains a domestic record.

“People asked me how I could keep competing in the national team for so long. I said, ‘an athlete should always maintain his or her best performance in order to win’,” he says “For me, it required clear goal and preparation, then confidence and effort to achieve it.”

“It’s great, but one day [the record] will be broken.”

Im’s sporting hero is Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis player who had a 20-year career at the elite level – and also recently retired.

“Federer accomplished more than anyone else in one field. We did different sports but he inspired me. He gave his best in every single match, even as he got older. I respect his attitude,” he says.

Im was a gold medallist with the Korean team at his first Asian Games in 2002 and first world championships in 2003.

He was individual World Archery Champion, for the second time after 2007, at his last worlds in 2017.

“I always tried to have the confidence that ‘I can’ during my archery career. Whether one year went by, or 10 years went by, I trained with goals so I wasn’t conceited or complacent,” he says.

Im Dong Hyun at London 2012

Im was thrust into the spotlight in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

A (mistranslated) interview had been published that claimed he was ‘legally blind’. He went on to set an Olympic and world record of 699 points during qualifying. In the archery world, the score was astounding, while in the wider world – the focus was on his vision.

“Reporters misunderstood,” a frustrated Im said at an event in 2016.

“My eyesight is poor but I wear glasses. I am grateful that they are paying a lot of attention… in the future, I ask for your interest in my skills as an archer.”

Im lost in the third round of what would be his last Olympics as an athlete.

He missed out on the team for Rio 2016, came back to win that world title in 2017, and was a member of the eight-archer national squad, though not the top line-up, until the pandemic in 2020.

“I realised I wasn’t performing as well as the other players and I felt I wasn’t motivated. My body wasn’t quite as good as I thought it should be,” he says.

The hardest thing was to leave the sport without the one medal that elevates archers to legends: individual Olympic gold. His team performances always delivered a medal but, in three Games, he never got beyond the quarterfinals of the individual event.

It nags at him.

“It would be a lie to say it wasn’t hard. It’s the most regrettable, and sad, thing for me,” he says. “But not having an Olympic individual gold and retirement are different things. I have a new goal of coaching other athletes, so I started to walk the coach’s path.”

Im Dong Hyun shooting from behind

Im finished his career at the professional team of Cheongju City Hall, one of the long-standing Korean teams that have been cited as the country’s ‘secret’ to its near half-century domination of the sport at the international level.

He remained there to start his coaching career, with the counterpart women’s squad.

His career as an athlete has shaped his approach to this new challenge.

“I’ve learned from so many. But I can say that all the good coaches had something in common. They always studied in order to improve their performance, communicated well with athletes and respected athletes as well,” he says.

“I talk a lot with archers and I try to give them advice rather than instruction, even in the small things. I want to understand the athletes in a horizontal relationship rather than a hierarchical one. By giving them advice rather than instruction, I want the archers to have their own values and philosophies.”

Much of the external focus at Paris 2024 will be on the Korean women’s team, who shoot for an incredible 10th Olympic gold, rather than the men for whom Im will be responsible.

The internal expectation to deliver results remains.

“I would like to thank those who trusted me, recruited me as a coach of the team and opened the way,” says Im Dong Hyun, who remains humble and dedicated at the start of this new chapter to his illustrious international career.

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