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Korea Reap Rewards of Golden Success
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Can Lee Byung-Kyu of Korea win a third Asian Games baseball gold medal? Korea's baseball team will arrive at the 15th Asian Games Doha 2006 with one simple aim – to win a third successive gold medal after its successes in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1998 and on home soil in Busan four years ago.

Few would bet against the Koreans achieving this feat in Doha, although Busan silver medallists Chinese Taipei will be trying hard to complete its set of medals having won bronze in the Asian Games of 1994 and 1998.

Korea may be favourite for the gold in a round robin competition that also features the Philippines, China, Thailand and 2002 bronze medallists Japan, but it is not taking anything for granted and is analysing its opponents' strengths and weaknesses on video.

However the honour of winning a third successive gold medal for Korea is not the only incentive that is on offer to more than half of the 22-man squad who are still to complete their military service.

An average of two years military service is compulsory for all able-bodied men over the age of 20 in Korea, but athletes who return home with Asian Games' gold medals or any colour from the Olympic Games are rewarded with exemption.

This allows Korea to select its best players for the major Games, particularly in this instance, with 11 players having been given military service exemption after the team reached the semifinals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March.

Korea lost to Japan 6-0 in the last four on that occasion, but with its rival expected to send an amateur team to the 15th Asian Games it is Chinese Taipei who are predicted to provide the sternest test for the defending champions.

Less than half of the Chinese Taipei team has reportedly been given exemptions from its national military service, but many other young talented players have not and this should give Korea an extra bonus in its golden quest.

Interestingly, the two sides face each other in their opening match at 09:00 on Thursday 30 November at the Al-Rayyan Sports Club, although the competition starts the previous day with China taking on Thailand and the Philippines facing Japan.

This will go a long way to determining the champions and Korea will look to its 19 year-old pitcher Ryu Hyun-Jin – named Korea Baseball Organisation's rookie of the year and most valuable player in 2006 – and Lee Dae-ho to take centre stage.

However, outfielder Lee Byung-Kyu's quest to complete his personal hat-trick of gold medals having been part of Korea's winning teams of 1998 and 2002 will not go unnoticed in a squad which a team official told the Yonhap News Agency is "improving every day".

( November 21, 2006)

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