The Korea Herald


[Newsmaker] In Korean sports, medals cover a multitude of sins

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Feb. 15, 2021 - 15:37

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Lee Jae-young (left) and Lee Da-young, players on the national women’s volleyball team (Yonhap) Lee Jae-young (left) and Lee Da-young, players on the national women’s volleyball team (Yonhap)
South Korean sports’ “medals-only” meritocracy is revealing its dark side after patterns of violent behavior were laid bare, shocking sports fans and the public.

On Monday the Incheon Heungkuk Life Insurance Pink Spiders, a women’s professional volleyball team, announced the indefinite suspension of twin sisters Lee Jae-young and Lee Da-young over assaults they had perpetrated on classmates in middle school.

It was only the latest scandal related to violence and bullying in the nation’s sports community.

Two years ago, short-track speed skater Shim Suk-hee was found to have been sexually assaulted by a coach over several years. Last year, young triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon killed herself after habitual assaults by a coach and others.

“Korea’s sports are 99 percent sacrificed for the 1 percent medalists. So, as long as they win medals or perform well, a coach or player can wield enormous power and their violence has been justified,” said Chung Yong-chul, a professor of sports psychology at Sogang University.

“Looking at the series of violence occurring in the past, it was not a conflict between players. A player with strength unilaterally harasses a player who does not,” the professor said.

The twin sisters’ violence was laid bare last week, when their middle school classmates revealed on an online community that the sisters had threatened one person with a knife and physically assaulted others. A few days later, another alumni revealed online that the sisters had ordered younger classmates to do the laundry, hitting and bullying them.

When the public’s anger did not fade, the sisters released a handwritten apology, saying, “It was an act we did in the past when we were immature.”

The revelations of school violence within the sports community did not end there.

Another anonymous victim said on an online community Sunday that she had been a victim of bullying as a member of a girls’ volleyball team, revealing that older teammates had frequently hit her and swore at her parents.

Two professional volleyball players, Song Myung-geun and Shim Kyung-seop, also recently admitted having taken part in school bullying and decided not to play in the remaining games this season following revelations online.

Professor Chung said unless the nation fundamentally changes the idea of “medal meritocracy” -- an athlete’s value is only defined by the medals they win -- victims and perpetrators will continue to appear.

According to a special survey conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea last year on the human rights situation of 60,000 elementary, middle and high school sports players across the country, 14.7 percent said they had experienced physical violence. Eighty percent said they had responded passively, not even reporting the assaults.

By Shin Ji-hye (