Sexual Assault Allegations Shed Light on Korea’s Speed Skating Community

“I came here so that there will be no more victims like me.”

South Korea’s speed skating world has garnered international praise and a loyal following as the community boasts its 24 gold medals, toppling the record of other countries such as Canada or the Netherlands.

In the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, perhaps the most noticeable win came from Shim Suk Hee when she secured the astonishing first place after stunning her Chinese opponent, Li Jianrou in a tense move on the final lap.

Many Korean citizens extolled the young, decorated speed skater as she led the women’s 3,000-meter track in the Pyeongchang Olympics to an ultimate victory. Yet, behind the poignant tears and gold medals lied the veil cast upon the community’s troubling flaws.

Back in September, Shim and her fellow teammates accused their former coach, Cho Jae-bom of physical assault. However, these accusations were then followed by the winning streak in the Pyeongchang Olympics; they were shadowed by these accomplishments. The accusations simply failed to get national attention. Nonetheless, The coach was fired shortly before the Pyeongchang Olympics after persistent accusations of mistreatment against Shim and her other fellow teammates. He was then sentenced 10 months in prison after being charged with physical assault against four elite skaters.

Former coach Cho Jae-bom being escorted to the courtroom for his interrogation.

Just last month, Shim has presented accusations against her ex-coach once again, immediately heightening the urgency of addressing the issue. According to these new allegations, Shim has been raped by Cho on a frequent basis since the age of 17.

Shim’s complaints have completely obliterated the rigid walls of Korea’s ultra-conservatism, sparking fury and shock throughout the entire nation. Furious citizens flocked to the Blue House petition website, demanding for a harsher sentence if Shim’s allegations are proven to be true. The Moon Jae-in administration has responded to this growing unreset, expressing its shame and revulsion: “[t]his unveils the humiliating underside of our country’s glorious facade as a sports powerhouse.”

In South Korea, it’s common for professional athletes to skip school and live with others in dormitories for the sake of dedicating every bit of their lives to their sport. Unfortunately, the frequent absences from school inevitably leave these athletes with a “one-way path” in their careers. This system strips athletes from their social and educational lives, tossing them directly into the hands of their coaches‐ without a sense of dependence. Those who speak out against their coaches are castigated as “traitors” and this pretty much sums up the persistent reluctance of these athletes to come out with their cases.

Coaches ostensibly train their trainees to success by utilizing certain measures to discipline and train them. Though, considering the cases of broken fingers and concussions Shim suffered from her coach, these “measures” are definitely inhumane and unnecessary.

I asked a KIS student-athlete on her thoughts on the relationship between an athlete and a coach to hopefully gain insight into the true role of a coach.

She says, “Even though the athlete and coach have to be in strict, disciplined terms in order to be successful, it should never be a fear-and-harm relationship. There are definitely lines between the two that either of them shouldn’t cross.”

Today, people around the world are observing this gradual momentum on addressing abuse and sexual assaults even in the Olympics arena. One year ago, the American gymnastics national team doctor, Larry Nassar, was sentenced to 175 years in prison after over a 140 victims delivered their testimonies in court. For decades, Nassar has been sexually abusing young gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment.

Shim’s allegations are giving us a renewed opportunity to reevaluate what South Koreans value through looking at competitive sports of great national pride and importance. On a broader note, this latest development will continue the momentum in South Korea for the broader movement seeking justice for countless victims of sexual assault.

– Hannah Jo (’20)

Featured Images: The Korean Herald

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