SEOUL, South Korea >> More South Korean female skaters say they were sexually abused by their coaches following explosive claims by two-time Olympic champion Shim Suk-hee that she had been raped by her former coach since she was a teen, a group representing athletes disclosed Monday.
Its announcement came as a growing #MeToo movement rocks South Korea’s elite sports scene, which has been notorious for brutal training cultures and highly hierarchical relationships between coaches and athletes. In addition to Shim, female athletes in judo, taekwondo and wrestling have also accused their male coaches of sexually abusing them.
In a news conference at South Korea’s parliament, the Solidarity for Young Skaters said it found five more skaters who were sexually abused by their coaches, but did not reveal any names, citing privacy concerns.
Lawmaker Sohn Hye-won, who appeared in the same news conference, said one of the alleged victims said she was repeatedly groped by a coach as a teen while training at the Korea National Sport University, a powerhouse in producing Olympic athletes. The skater said the coach would forcibly hug and kiss her and verbally abused her after she rejected his advances, Sohn said.
Sohn called for an investigation into former national team coach Jeon Myeong-gyu, who is somewhat of a godfather figure in South Korean skating. Currently a professor at KNSU, Jeon has long been accused of nepotism by favoring athletes and coaches from the school in international competition and is now under suspicion of pressuring victims in order to cover up sex crimes committed by coaches he taught.
“There has been frequent sexual abuse in the skating scene, but the offenders in most cases did not receive punishment; that’s because the coaches were members of the KNSU circle led by Professor Jeong Myeong-gyu,” said Sohn, who said the victims are afraid they would face retaliation if they step up with their claims.
Jeong has not spoken publicly about the allegations against him.
Sohn and the skaters’ group also urged Korean Sport and Olympic Committee President Lee Kee-heung and other leaders of the body to step down for failing to safeguard athletes. The committee said it plans to launch a special committee to investigate abuse across sports and create new rules to protect athletes.
Experts say abusive treatment of female athletes has long been a problem in South Korean elite sports, which are often run by men. Athletes must live in dormitories, where coaches often exercise overbearing control, and they skip school from a young age in order to perform well at athletic events, leaving them with less education and career choices, which makes it harder for them to resist unjust treatment, critics say.
South Korea has associated Olympic achievements with national pride and the problems regarding training cultures have often been overlooked as long as the athletes produce.
But the pressure for change is now coming from a younger generation of athletes, led by Shim, who won two gold medals in women’s short-track speed skating in the 2018 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
Shim earlier this month accused his former coach Cho Jae-beom, of repeatedly raping her since she was 17.
Cho was fired as the national team coach shortly before the Pyeongchang Olympics last year and is now serving a 10-month prison term for physically assaulting athletes, including Shim. Cho’s lawyers said he denies sexually assaulting Shim.
Shim’s claims have encouraged other female athletes to speak up about the alleged abuse they suffered from their male coaches. Shin Yoo-young, a former judo athlete, has also accused her former high school coach of repeatedly raping her. Lee Ji-hye, a former taekwondo athlete, told a television interview that she had been sexually abused by her former coach for five year since she was a sixth-grader.
The Korea Wrestling Federation is also investigating claims that some female members of the national team were groped by a coach while training for the Jakarta Palembang Asian Games last year.