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시사 South Korea Confronts Dirty Secret of Its Sports

admin 2011.07.16 18:14 read.5777 vote.59

South Korea Confronts Dirty Secret of Its Sports
CloseLinkedinDiggMySpacePermalink SEOUL — South Korea rejoiced over the selection of Pyeongchang as the host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics last week. Both the government and the local media gushed about how the successful campaign would burnish South Korea’s international image. In the same day, obscured by the festive mood, prosecutors at another South Korean town peeled more layers off a long hushed dirty secret of South Korean sports.

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Go to the Goal BlogIn what is snowballing into the biggest match-fixing scandal in South Korean history, prosecutors in the southern coastal city of Changwon have so far indicted 55 soccer players, almost one out of every 10 K-League players.

They called game fixing in the K- League “endemic.”

This week, faced with its biggest crisis, the K-League announced that it would introduce a lie-detector test and break the league into two divisions to fight match fixing. (If caught match fixing, clubs would be relegated to the lower division.) It will also double the minimum annual salary for a player to 24 million won, or almost $23,000, hoping the added pay will reduce the temptation for the lowest-paid players to take bribes.

Observers say that match fixing is an outgrowth of what has plagued South Korea, a powerhouse in Asian sports, for decades: Widespread abuse and mistreatment of athletes that begins at a young age; poor salaries; a culture that demands blind respect of authority; and the society’s lax ethical standards on corruption.

How the match-fixing scandal got quickly buried in the news over Pyeongchang speaks volumes about why sports remains one of the most corrupt sectors of South Korean society. While cheering Pyeongchang’s successful Olympic bid, South Koreans hardly appeared to notice that their proud Olympic campaign was led by three business tycoons, all of them once convicted of corruption: Lee Kun-hee of Samsung, Cho Yang-ho of Korean Air and Park Yong-sung, former chairman of the Doosan conglomerate and now head of the Korean Olympic Committee.

“Koreans are obsessed with winning Olympic golds and hosting mega-sports events like the Olympics,” said Chung Hee-joon, a professor of sports science at Dong-A University. “But other than that, they pay little attention, don’t care. So, widespread human rights violations, abuse of young athletes, beatings and violence in sports go ignored.

“Match fixing? It’s far more widespread than prosecutors say,” Chung added. “I dare say that it takes place in all sports. It’s not just the K-League.”

Chung is not the only critic — and match fixing is not the only problem — that raises alarms about South Korean sports. In a 2008 report, the government’s National Human Rights Commission said that nearly 80 percent of student athletes in middle and high schools suffered physical and verbal violence from their coaches and older teammates. Those who reported sexual violence amounted to 63.8 percent of the 1,139 surveyed.

In a separate survey on primary school athletes, the commission reported that coaches used “batons, hands, baseball bats and tennis rackets” to beat the young players in the name of discipline.

Nothing galvanizes South Koreans’ nationalistic fervor more than Olympic and other international sports events, especially its national soccer team’s most high-profile matches. Star athletes like the Olympic figure-skating champion Kim Yu-na become national heroes.

But most other athletes languish under minuscule wages and a deep-rooted social prejudice against athletes. Nowhere is the phenomenon starker than in the K-League. Except for hard-core fans, most South Koreans in general do not follow the league. Even sports channels on cable television often shun its matches in favor of the more popular domestic baseball league.

Kim Ho, a former national team coach who until 2009 trained the Daejeon Citizen, one of the K-League teams implicated in match fixing, said, “The whole system creates criminals out of our players.”

In South Korea, most school athletic teams remain so under-budgeted that they depend on donations from parents for travel and food. In South Korea, the only way an athlete can get a deferment of mandatory military service — and avoid an abrupt postponement, or end, of his sports career — is by enrolling in college. Even then, for most players, joining an overseas club for a big contract is all but a dream, because the deferment of military service can last only until players turn 30, which makes some overseas teams hesitant to sign a player they could lose. (If a player on a national team wins a major international championship, or if an athlete wins an Olympic medal, they are exempted entirely from service.)

Reports of coaches and parents exchanging bribes to help student athletes win college admission have become common. Those few who make the starting lineups of K-League teams usually earn only 50 million won a year, sports officials said. Until now, lesser K-League players lived with the minimum wage of 1 million won, or less than $950, a month.

“That makes our young players vulnerable to things like match fixing,” said Cho Jung-soo, a former head of the disciplinary board of the Korea Football Association.

The end-justifies-means culture, often enforced by physical violence and blind respect of seniority, also breeds corruption, investigators said.

“Some players joined the match-fixing schemes for cash rewards, but most did so because of senior-junior relationships among players,” said Kwak Kyu- hong, a prosecution spokesman, in a statement. A player hired by a gangster in turn enlisted his junior teammates in the match fixing, he said.

When Cha Bum-kun, a former national soccer team coach, first raised allegations of game fixing in the domestic league in 1998, the Korea Football Association accused him of slander and stripped him of his coaching license for five years. Yet, rumors of match fixing have been around for years.

Some players learn match fixing long before they turn pro. Last September, the head coaches of two high school soccer teams lost their licenses for match fixing. In the case, one team allowed five goals in the last eight minutes to lose, 5-1, to help the other team advance to the finals.

Later, young players exchanged cell-phone text messages with friends in other teams about how their coach instructed them to lose the game.

In April, the head coach of the Korea University soccer team in Seoul was arrested on charges of bribing referees and officials of the soccer association.

Yeom Dong-kyun, one of the K-League soccer players indicted, told the JoongAng newspaper in an interview from his prison cell: “I joined the match fixing without much compunction because I had heard that it’s widespread in the league.” In May, another player was found dead in a hotel room. He left a suicide note apologizing for bringing player friends into the match fixing.

Meanwhile, the match-fixing investigation has thrown the 16-team K-League into disarray. On Saturday, the Sangmoo Phoenix, nine of whose players are indicted, along with its coach, had to play with a field player filling in as a goalkeeper. Three of its four keepers were indicted, and the fourth was banned after piling up too many yellow cards.

“We are at a loss for words as we try to apologize for causing disappointment for the people at a time when the whole nation is united in rejoicing over Pyeongchang,” said Chung Mong-gyu, president of the K-League, on Monday.