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2009/09/24 15:37 KST
(Yonhap Feature) Sports community struggles against violent coaching

By Kim Boram
SEOUL, Sept. 24 (Yonhap) -- When we think of sporting heroes, the images that come to mind tend to be of their moments of glory: a team lifting the champion's trophy as a stadium erupts in deafening applause, or the tears of pride as an athlete dons an Olympic gold medal to the sound of their national anthem.

   Yet, such moments of glory are a small part of any athletes life, and offset by no small amount of grueling training, hard work and self-abnegation. In South Korea, where seniority and hierarchy are key parts of the culture, obedience counts for much.

   So what happens when a coach gets angry and beats their players for losing an important tournament? Should such violence be justified by the hopes of an Olympic medal or winning a major championship?

   The questions resonate in a country which last year won 10 golds at the Beijing Olympics, proving itself a formidable competitor in world sports, and at home set a new record this month in the number of attendants at baseball games in their 28-year history.

   Last week, controversy erupted when a top-ranking volleyball player from the national team, while training for an international competition later this month, was beaten in the face and abdomen by an assistant coach. The player, Park Chul-woo, later held a press conference with a scarred face and bared his bruised torso for the cameras.
The Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) responded by dismissing Kim Ho-chul, the team's head coach, although his assistant argued that Park had been "impertinent." The KOC's punishment was unprecedentedly heavy, apparently a message to the sports community.

   But insiders' stories indicate there are many more such cases in the sports business.

   According to a research by the KOC in 2005, 78.1 percent of some 1,600 athletes in school teams answered that they had been subjected to violence while in training or in a match. Most of them, 77.5 percent, were beaten by coaches and 21.8 percent were beaten by a captain or senior teammates.

   In 2004, some short track speed skaters left the national training center after losing patience with years of beating and excessive training. The sport has been a popular and favorite sector, with tens of medals won at Olympics and other international competitions.

   "It was five years ago, but nothing has improved," said former short track speed skater Chun Lee-Kyung who won four Olympic golds. "After the short track assault, many other violent cases have been reported, but violence is still on the show."

   She said that leaders of sports teams who attach too much importance on performance results forced players to train excessively hard and even hit them.

   South Korea has what is called "semi-finals system," which guarantees players in a team that finishes at least fourth in a nationwide tournament a college admission. Under such a system, results are a matter of life and death to coaches and players.

   A separate report published by the National Human Rights Commission in February this year said that trainers and coaches teaching in schools are obsessed with performance records in order to be recognized as competent leaders.

   "If a player he beat up does well in a contest, the coach believes it had an effect. And even the players begin to believe that they don't train hard otherwise. It is a vicious cycle," Chun said.

   The KOC study said that most coaches say they hit their players because they did not follow their instructions and were too weak mentally to survive tough training and produce good results at tournaments.

   Other experts point out that longstanding culture of hierarchy in sports community aggravates the vicious circle.

   In schools, coaches virtually have absolute power in deciding whether their student athletes are competitive enough to be included in a regular roster and to take the field. Students and their parents, well aware of such power, cannot protest against the coaches and cringe at every facial expression suggesting discontent by the coaches.

   "The distorted relationship really exists here. Even though players feel something is wrong, they cannot say it out loud and oppose it," said Lee Moon-kyu, former basketball player and current sports commentator.

   Some argue that the KOC should punish violent coaching staff to eradicate violence in sport.

   A few years ago, a head coach of a professional volleyball team had beaten his players after losing a match. He was suspended for only six months and came back.

   "The sport community demanded that suspended coaches be reinstated in order to produce good results at Olympic Games, and that has been customary in the past," KOC President Park Yong-sung said. "Now, we will never lift the ban and purge all violent coaches."

   "Does a gold medal achieved by violence mean a lot? Does a gold medal won by battering our players shine brightly?" Park asked. "We don't need such medals."