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Moon calls for full probe, proper punishment in case of violence against triathletes

President Moon Jae-in (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in (Yonhap)

President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday stressed the need for a thorough investigation and proper punishment of the perpetrators in the case of a triathlete who was found dead after claiming she had been abused by her coaches and team staff.

Choi Suk-hyeon, 22, jumped to her death from her dormitory in Busan on June 26, leaving a Kakaotalk message to her mother asking her to “reveal the sins” of her abusers.

Choi, a junior bronze medalist at the 2015 Triathlon Asian Championships, had sought help to stop the violence through the police, the national triathlon federation and the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee, but never received their support, according to news reports.

“Such unfortunate incidents must never happen again,” Moon said during a biweekly Cabinet meeting at his office on Tuesday.

“Cruel treatment and abuse of athletes are unjustifiable remnants of the olden days ... The sports community must depart from such habitual, backward behavior.”

Moon called on relevant government agencies to thoroughly investigate the case, and come up with effective measures to prevent such violence against athletes, along with the sports community.

“If it is true that the victim never received proper help from the police, the federation, the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee and the city government of Gyeongju despite having sought their help, this is a problem that must be addressed,” Moon said.

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 KSOC in April.

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

Choi’s family also filed a petition with the national human rights commission the day before Choi jumped to her death.

The federation on Monday banned Kim Gyu-bong, head coach of the semi-pro triathlon team owned by Gyeongju City, and team captain Jang Yun-jung, who won a silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games, from all activities run by the federation, and they were stripped of their rights as a coach and athlete.

The federation handed Kim and Jang the heaviest punishment based on judgment that Kim “committed or neglected intentional and repeated violence that led to injuries, and damaged the dignity of sportspeople,” and Jang “repeatedly assaulted and verbally abused team members.”

Ahn Young-joo, a lawyer who heads the federation’s fair sports committee, told local media that the three alleged abusers appeared to be receiving someone’s advice in denying wrongdoing by making the exact same testimony, while it didn’t seem like the team members were making things up intentionally.

At least 15 former and current members of the triathlon team have told police that they were abused by Kim, Jang and a team physiotherapist who had no license to practice physiotherapy.

Two former teammates of Choi raised additional allegations during a press conference held at the National Assembly on Monday, saying the Gyeongju City Hall team was a “kingdom” of the head coach and certain athletes where habitual violence and verbal abuse were widely overlooked.

They said they couldn’t reveal the truth earlier out of fear of retaliation.

Violence has long been a deep-seated problem in Korea’s sporting community, which for years maintained brutal training systems and a strong hierarchical relationships between coaches and athletes, and among athletes based on seniority.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the KSOC pledged to conduct a thorough investigation on Monday.

By Kim So-hyun (