What lies ahead for Korea's forgotten athletes?

Wed Oct 28, 2015 5:00am EDT
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Hooyeon Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - Weightlifting champion Kim Byeong-chan died alone, paralyzed and penniless after a motorcycle accident cut short his career, and for some former athletes his demise is a consequence of South Korea's ruthless pursuit of sporting excellence.

The limited social safety net for athletes who get seriously injured, or who fail to make the grade, is a concern for many sportsmen and women in South Korea, a country which arrived on the global stage with the hosting of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Park Chung-hee's regime of the 1960s saw sport as an avenue to raise Korea's global profile and gain legitimacy at home, and poured huge amounts of money into creating an elite athlete program as well as bidding to host international competitions.

While the program boosted Korea as a sporting power and produced world-class athletes, it also has a darker side.

Athletes at schools and universities rarely excel academically and are encouraged to focus all their efforts on joining the sporting elite.

Those who fail to win international titles or make national teams have little to fall back on when their sporting careers end, and they can expect little help from the government, according to support groups.

South Korean lawmaker Elisa Lee recognized the need to provide better support for athletes and introduced a bill that would provide pensions to national team members who sustain serious injuries, designating them 'people of national merit'.

The proposal was passed into law in January 2014 but has taken almost two years to finalize guidelines and standards.   Continued...

Kim So-young, a former gymnast who was paralysed from the neck down at 16 after falling off the parallel bars while training, talks to former Olympic gold medalist Jang Mi-ran (R) at her office in Seoul, South Korea, October 23, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji