Edited by Seo Hae Ran
Translated by Kim Hoyeun
Everything started with this video.
This seven-minutes video reached 2.66 million views on YouTube, and the ‘handsome’ ssireum wrestler Hwang Chan Seop, who appeared in the video, became a new star. After having been empty for years, spectators began to enter the ssireum stadium, and the videos of the match featured witty comments from viewers captivated with the charm of ssireum. Not only did various media outlets began to cheer ssireum wrestlers, interest in ssireum as a whole started to increase. KBS, which has been broadcasting ssireum for a long time, used this opportunity to plan a new program, Joy of Ssireum, which adds ssireum with a survival audition format like Produce X 101.
Joy of Ssireum established a goal to “return of skillful ssireum,” by presenting a match that highlights sophisticated skills and high-level strategies. So far, people’s perception of ssireum is firm: big players use overwhelming physical conditions to force their opponents. To change this preconception, Joy of Ssireum found the answer in the lightweight class where skills are more central. The program is based on a unified competition of “Taegeuk Jangsa Contest” between Taebaek (-80kg) and Geumgang (-90kg) wrestlers, adding the reality element, just like the audition programs.
A total of 16 ssireum wrestlers, eight from each weight division, have entered the competition. They range from living legend who holds 14 Jangsa titles (winner of the ssireum competition) to young, ambitious players who dominated the recent championships. Before diving into an actual game, Joy of Ssireum started with rivals and weight division matches, allowing the viewers to get to know each wrestler and understand how ssireum competition works. The carefully made personal introductory video for each wrestler that contains almost all the information the viewers might wonder, including basic profiles such as physical conditions, past performances, training and previous match videos, information about how they started Ssireum, and their philosophy of the sport. In each episode, the program also organized a fun daily lives of the wrestlers by presenting weight-in related episodes, methods of their practices, individual strategies, and interviews.
As thrilling matches, close-up cameras featuring wrestlers’ daily lives, and ebullient interviews piled up, they transformed from “normal wrestlers” to “attractive stars.” Nicknames such as “Hercules,” “Genius,” and “Davide” were created, and the wrestlers’ individual SNS channels were followed with fans’ supports. There even was an “in-person event” to see the games in person. The stadium is small in size, but it is designed to be as close as professional wrestling or mixed martial arts (MMA) stadiums. Wrestlers, who exercised and played lonely in an empty stadium, showed off their skills more than ever in a full stadium. Of course, nothing was missed even if we didn’t see the match on-site. Thanks to the sophisticated filming, the viewers could see the fine movements of the muscles and the scattered sand. Kim Sung Joo performed his role as a sports commentator and a host of the program smoothly, while Lee Man Ki excelled with his explanations. Boom also performed well with his commentaries in-between, adding vitality to the program.
Every athletic competition is bound to have a result. However, the wrestlers who lost the match showed no tears of regret. During interviews, all of them showed a sense of pride that they tried their best to compete fair and square and expressed gratitude for the love and support people have sent to ssireum. Although the final was held privately due to the spread of COVID-19, the wrestlers showed great performances till the end. After watching the wrestlers, who give their all to the competition with or without the audience, I have come to respect the wrestlers as one of the viewers.
Now the spotlight is turned off, and the players and coaches have returned to their fields. But I believe that this interest in ssireum won’t easily disappear as it became a “familiar” sport. Survival audition programs such as Joy of Ssireum might not be the perfect answer, but it is undoubtedly a valid format to promote and familiarize the sport. I hope that other sports and players will get a chance to entertain viewers, just like ssireum.
Verdict: I am thrilled by the thrilling match and the hot passion of ssireum (7/10)