Skating champion’s sex abuse revelation reveals dirt in Korean sports


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Sports Ministry asks audit body to look into athletes’ village after gold medalist Shim Suk-hee’s sexual assault allegations

The South Korean government on Wednesday announced a series of measures to prevent the sexual abuse of athletes, including a state-level inspection of all related organizations, in the latest response to Olympic gold-medalist speedskater Shim Suk-hee’s claims that her coach sexually assaulted her multiple times.

In a press briefing Wednesday, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said that it has requested the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea to look into the operation of the athletes’ village and how players are managed by coaching staff. BAI will take up to a month to decide whether an inspection is necessary, and up to six months to announce the result of its probe, though this can be extended if necessary.

“The audit will not be limited to the athletes’ village, but will be about the overall management of athletes,” the ministry said at the briefing, adding it will not shirk responsibility. 

An official of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism speaks during a media briefing in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

“We (the ministry) understand those who say that we cannot be absolved of responsibility. If a fault on our part is found, we will take full responsibility.”

The ministry is also considering involving the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in the investigation and installing an independent “sports ethics center” that would specialize in investigating misconduct in the sports circle. A bill that would enable this body to be formed was proposed last week and is currently pending at the National Assembly.

Other measures that will be taken include the employment of female trainers to check on the well-being of female athletes.

However, the ministry’s measures largely failed to hold the Korean Sports and Olympic Committee — of which coach Cho Jae-gum, the alleged perpetrator in Shim’s case, is a part — responsible.

In Korea, national-level athletes competing in sports without a professional league usually live and train at the state-run athletes’ village, under the management of coaching staff. Most professional athletes live in quarters run by their teams. Just last year, the Korean Basketball League decided to allow players to commute during home games.

Being confined to a living space under constant watch could make players more susceptible to influence from their coaching staff, particularly underage players.

At the professional level, a case of sexual violence involving a professional basketball player sparked nationwide outrage in 2007, resulting in a suspended prison term for the head coach.

In Shim’s case, multiple instances of sexual assault allegedly occurred in the four years leading up to last year’s PyeongChang Winter Games, which included a period when Shim was a minor.

Shim’s father recently told the Korean media that KSOC chief Lee Kee-heung told Shim that he would “take care of the Cho case,” and that he would bring him back “when the dust settles.” The KSOC denied that Lee had made the statement.

“The status of KSOC is twofold: It is a national Olympic committee with ties to the International Olympic Committee, and also a state organization,” said a ministry official, citing the IOC’s regulation that restricts a state from unfairly influencing its national Olympic committee.

“The situation concerning Lee should be handled as the regulation states, but we admit there are limits,” he said, adding that the ministry is considering measures to deal with repeat offenses by KSOC officials, though he did not elaborate.

Those in the sports circle have pointed out that KSOC’s lukewarm response toward offenders exacerbates the problem.

In 2009, KSOC created a center for those in the sports circle to report sexual violence, in response to sexual abuse by the professional basketball coach. In the past 10 years, the committee has investigated four of the 113 cases reported to the center.

By Yoon Min-sik
(minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)


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