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Activism Culture

Is violence a part of training in South Korean elite sports?

#Metoo: Sexual violence in the South Korean Olympics

By Yoona Lee


“It was for raising of a national athlete…”

From 1st year in elementary school, they were taught that becoming gold medalists  all they should think of. To become one, they have to follow the perfect coach who is well renowned, successful and influential in the field. The perfect coach will ensure their path to a privileged university and a good relationship within the sports union which leads to a place in the national team. Sometimes, trainings will be unbearable and coaches will be harsh, but that is how one becomes a gold medalist.

This is the narrative that gives a coach enormous power over their young athletes in South Korea.

Shim Suk-hee, 21-year-old Korean national speed skating athlete, has won 20 gold medals in international games, including 2014 and 2018 winter Olympics. Now, Shim is disclosing physical and sexual violence she had to endure to bring the coach, Cho Jae-bum, to justice. According to her testimony, Cho has habitually abused Shim since she was 8 years old. When she was in 4th grade elementary school, Cho broke her finger hitting with an ice-hockey stick. Shim felt threat to her life before 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic, which lead to her escape out of the training center – her escape was on news without explanation at the time. For the same Olympic, she fell during a preliminary round for 1500m female speed skating, and she argues it was because of concussion from Cho’s violence. Shim added disclosure on Cho’s rape since she was 17, after Cho convincing 3 out of 4 witnesses to consent. Shim had not even told her parents nor attorneys about sexual assaults before then. For physical abuse, the court has sentenced Cho 10 months of imprisonment and another case is being investigated for Cho’s sexual assaults.

Is this an extraordinary or extreme case in Korean elite sports field? There has been numerous physical, mental and sexual abuse of athletes but those never lead to fundamental change in Korean sports. If Shim was not a popular athlete nationwide, this case could have been buried underground as well. Ju Jong-mi, a professor of Sports Science at Hoseo University, said in a podcast that rampant sexual assault is a structural failure. On the base of patriarchy that gives men power over women, following characteristics of Korean elite sports solidify the problem, making it chronic.

1. Absolute hierarchy.
2. Extreme collectivism of a closed society.
3. Lack of sex awareness among athletes and coaches.
4. Organizational climate of endorsing offenders rather than victims.

In addition to that, Choe Sang-hun wrote in the New York Times article that Korea’s tendency to justify everything for gold medals and that is a point many experts would agree with. It is widely believed that hard trainings involving punishment push athletes to perform better. However, well-being of athletes should come before results and that seems to be the public sentiment in Korea now. The petition for thorough investigation and powerful penalties of sexual assaults in elite sports outnumbered 200,000 which requires governmental action.
Korean Congress (or National Assembly) published ‘One Strike Out’ bill which will prevent sexual assault perpetrators coming back to the field. Ministry of Sport, Culture and Tourism strengthened penalties for sexual assaults and promised investigation of Skating Union by a private enterprise. President Moon Jae-in also pressured reformation of Korean elite sports, saying “Sports should be for self-actualization and self-growth and most of all, should be fun.”

There are superficial changes being made, and it is up to active surveillance of the public for the elite sports system to keep their promise and make the change.