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[Newsmaker] More victims come forward over triathletes abuse case

Kim Gyu-bong, the head coach of a semi-pro triathlete club owned by Gyeongju City, answers questions from lawmakers during a National Assembly hearing on Monday. (Yonhap)
Kim Gyu-bong, the head coach of a semi-pro triathlete club owned by Gyeongju City, answers questions from lawmakers during a National Assembly hearing on Monday. (Yonhap)

A wave of abuse allegations swept a semi-pro triathlete club owned by Gyeongju City after the suicide of a player who claimed to have suffered years of verbal and physical abuse from her coach, team physician and senior teammates.

More triathletes have come forward as victims and in support of the deceased teammate, but the alleged abusers denied any wrongdoing.

Some 15 former and current triathletes have told police that they were victimized by the alleged abusers, according to Gyeongbuk Provincial Police Agency on Monday, which launched investigations into illegal practices involving the club on July 3.

Two former teammates of Choi Suk-hyeon, 22, who took her own life on June 26 in her home in Busan, brought up additional allegations during a press conference held at the National Assembly on Monday.

They said they decided to reveal the truth behind her death belatedly, although the fear of retaliation held them back when Choi was alive.

Supporting Choi’s claims, they said they were also victims of head coach Kim Gyu-bong, who constantly hit them, and were bullied by the team’s captain.

“The Gyeongju City Hall team was the kingdom of the head coach and certain athletes where habitual violence and verbal abuse were widely tolerated.”

Before committing suicide, Choi sent a text message to her mother and asked to “expose the crimes of those people,” in an apparent reference to her alleged abusers.

In February, Choi had filed charges against the head coach, a team physiotherapist and two senior teammates for harassment and also filed a petition with the Korea Triathlon Federation and the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee in April.

Gyeongju police forwarded Choi’s case to prosecutors in May recommending indictment for the alleged abusers on charges of assault and extortion.

The two athletes and Choi were physically abused as frequently as “10 days a month” while insulting words become everyday language in the team.

One of the main reasons for the coach’s physical abuse was cited as snacks that triathletes had consumed, such as nuts, a soft drink and a peach. The athletes were told to watch their weight.

Attending a National Assembly hearing Monday, the head coach denied all allegations claimed by Choi and other players.

“I haven’t physically attacked (anyone). I stopped the team physician after hearing the sound of hitting Choi,” Kim said.

The case snowballed into a sport-wide discussion. Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Park Yang-woo vowed all-out efforts to prevent recurrence of such incidents through a stern reprimand and thorough investigation on abusers and the people involved in the case.

“I would like to take the case as an opportunity to stop wrong practices and customs in the sports community,” Park said.

On July 2, the ministry kicked off a special investigation and audit of the Korea Triathlon Federation and the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee.

Lawmakers including Rep. Kim Mi-ae of the main opposition United Future Party criticized sports authorities for dragging their feet over Choi’s complaints, saying record files submitted by her father to a rights center under the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee in April were obvious enough to prove habitual and persistent physical abuse.

“They should have known it was a serious case and taken disciplinary action but they didn’t,” she said.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)
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