Cases of sexual abuse in Korean sports are surfacing.
Former judo player Shin Yu-yong revealed Monday that she had filed a complaint with police in March last year accusing her high school coach of sexual assault.
Six days earlier, Shim Suk-hee, a two-time Olympic short track speedskating champion, accused her former coach Cho Jae-beom of rape.
These revelations may only be the tip of the iceberg, but we hope the #MeToo movement has arrived in the sports community in Korea.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee have announced steps to prevent reoccurrences. However, critics say the ministry and the committee have done little in the past, letting the situation worsen over the years.
In the past five years, the committee has taken disciplinary action against 16 sex offenders, including five belonging to the Korea Skating Union, but it is questionable whether they were punished properly.
In 2015, a national swimming coach was suspended for six years over violence and sexual misconduct, but the coach was later appointed to one of Korea Swimming Federation committees.
In 2013, a coach of a business skating team was permanently expelled after being charged by the prosecution with sexual molestation, but the expulsion was later mitigated to a three-year suspension.
The Korea Skating Union on Monday made the “final” decision to expel Cho permanently. This came a year after the union first found out that he had assaulted Shim. The case came to light after Shim was absent without notice from a training camp in January last year.
A week after Shim left the camp, the union decided to expel Cho. However, the ministry found procedural problems with the decision and told the union in May to start over with the disciplinary proceedings.
The union only made its final decision Monday, in the wake of Shim’s public revelations of sexual abuse. This raises the question of whether the union and the ministry took the earlier assaults seriously from the start.
The committee and its affiliated federations have taken disciplinary action against 860 coaches and athletes over cases of irregularities and abuse in the past five years. Twenty-four of them were reinstated or found jobs before their suspension ended, and 299 did so after the termination of suspension.
These instances show why athletes cannot but suffer violence in silence out of fear of retaliation. If found responsible, coaches must be banned from training athletes again -- no matter how outstanding their coaching skills are.
Meanwhile, the ministry has vowed to toughen punishment and conduct sweeping investigations. The committee has decided to install more CCTV cameras at training sites and to set up emergency bells in locker rooms.
These actions amount to nothing more than treating symptoms. Each time a case of sexual abuse or violence emerges, sporting authorities announce hastily drawn-up steps. Reoccurrences are unavoidable without fundamental solutions.
In the sports circle, violence tends to be tolerated because of the closed culture of elite sports. Coaches scout talented potential athletes and train them in the fashion of an apprenticeship. The coach-athlete relationship can turn into something like a master-servant one. Boundaries between training and hazing are often blurred as training intensifies.
Among other factors, athletes know that their careers could go to the dogs if a complaint they file misses the mark. Scores and rankings become priorities that must be put before any other value. Training camps are usually cut off from the outside world.
Therefore, the ministry and the committee must seek to do away with the closed culture that can foster systematic abuse and replace it with an open culture of training.
In addition, more victims should come forward and share their stories of sexual abuse and other violence at the hands of coaches.
The #MeToo movement swept Korean society like wildfire last year. Sex crimes rooted in a male-dominated organizational culture were exposed by a prosecutor, actresses and university students, among others. However, many still keep silent out of fear of collateral damage and retaliation.
Authorities must protect them and inspire others to speak up. Offenders count on silence. Real change begins when the silence is broken.