For fans who have been around K-pop for a while, it’s common knowledge that South Koreans take their sports very seriously. Professional athletes are well-known and respected by the entire nation, and their presence is felt throughout South Korean culture. In fact, many famous actors and idols even mention in their interviews that they once harbored the dream of becoming a professional football player. So it’s really no surprise that many athletes choose to even take it a step further after achieving fame in the world of sports and enter the entertainment industry, hosting their own shows or recording singles with famous artists.

Perhaps one of the most recent South Korean athletes who has skyrocketed to fame in the last five years or so is Kim Yu-na, the 2010 Winter Olympics champion in ladies’ figure-skating. Two years ago in Vancouver, she blew her competition away with a myriad of twists, turns, and graceful leaps. During the medal ceremony, her tears fell as she proudly waved to the audience, wearing South Korea’s first gold medal ever obtained during the Winter Olympics in an event that was not short track or speed skating.

Since then, Kim Yu-na has held countless showcases on ice in South Korea, recorded songs with IU, Big Bang, and Lee Seung-gi, and even hosted her own variety show on ice, Kiss & Cry. Kiss & Cry featured ten popular K-pop idols such as U-Know Yunho, Krystal, and even Son Dam-bi who were paired up with a professional ice skater for an ice-dancing competition. Not only that, companies scrambled to secure CF contracts with her and she was named international UNICEF goodwill ambassador during the summer of 2010. Kim Yu-na has also donated about two billion won (1.7 million dollars) to various charities during the last two years. It’s clear that this girl isn’t limiting her success to just the ice. Her incredible accomplishments have earned her the love of her nation and respect worldwide as an amazing figure skater. I gotta say, Lee Joon, although he seems a bit slow to react sometimes, has seriously good taste in “ideal types,” because this girl knows how to work the public eye to her advantage.

Another famous South Korean athlete who has taken their fame to other aspects of their career, although perhaps not musically, is Park Tae-hwan, the first Asian to win a gold medal in swimming during the Summer Olympics. Since then, he has done photoshoots for Elle Korea and FILA. He also appears on variety shows every once in a while to give interviews and has been linked by netizens to Sunye from the Wonder Girls and of course, Kim Yu-na herself.

Unlike Kim Yu-na, however, who announced last year that she planned on sitting out the entire 2011-2012 figure-skating season, Park Tae-hwan is completely focused on his swimming despite all his other activities. Recently, he smashed one of Michael Phelps‘ records and is looking to rival the powerful American swimmer at the 2012 London Games. He has a lot to live up to — his own country even gave him the nickname, “Marine Boy.”

And of course, we can’t forget about the football craze (soccer, for all you Americans) that defines South Korean culture (especially when there’s a World Cup going on). Midfielder Park Ji-sung hails from Seoul and is currently the most decorated Asian footballer in history. He announced his retirement from international football only last year, after playing midfield for Manchester United for six years. Park Ji-sung was also the team captain of the South Korean national football team for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He has filmed CFs for Nike and Gillette. Not only that, Park Ji-sung hosted the Asian Dream Cup, which was a charity football game that took place last June. JYJ performed at halftime, and actress Han Hye-jin was the face of the event. Since then, Park Ji-sung has continued to make appearances in interviews and it’ll definitely be interesting what he does next with his career.

Athletes taking careers a step further and going into the entertainment industry is beneficial to them for many reasons — their fame is already established, they are paid handsomely, and if they are philanthropists, they can use their fame and salaries to really make a difference in the world. However, one can also argue that being in the entertainment industry at the same time distracts from training, and that is perhaps why a handful of well-known and skilled athletes choose not to take any part in participating in magazine shoots or appearing on variety shows. At the end of the day, it’s totally up to the athlete to make that decision, but it’s definitely very clear that sports is one of the things that makes Korean pop culture what it is today.

(Wikipedia, SBS, LOEN Entertainment)