The price of success for young South Korean athletes

Analysing the impact choosing sport or studies has on the future of a young South Korean.

you young korea skater
At 13, figure-skating prodigy Young is already well-known at home but is too young to compete at the 2018 Olympics [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

Seoul, South Korea – The breakout star of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics has so far been American half-pipe snowboarder Chloe Kim, whose jaw-dropping performance won her gold last week.

During that run, the 17-year-old Kim got a lot more cheers from the audience than most US athletes because she is ethnically Korean, having been born in the US to parents who migrated from South Korea.

Kim’s success has sparked a conversation in South Korea over whether she would have risen to the top had she been born and raised in Korea.

Some suggested that had that happened, she would have spent her youth studying all day instead of developing her creative snowboard style.

South Korea has not produced any star athletes in snow sports but it has put up significant Winter Olympics achievements in a short time. No athlete from the country had won a Winter Olympics medal until 1992, when the country came away with four.

That number rose to 14, the country’s best-ever performance, at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Winter sports is just one area in which South Korea has come a long way in a short time, having risen from post-war poverty in the 1950s to becoming one of the world’s richest countries in a matter of decades.

To fuel this rise, South Koreans work longer hours than most of their counterparts in other developed countries, sleep less and take shorter vacations.

However, it also leaves some of them ill-prepared for what to do with the rest of their lives when their sports dreams fizzle [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]
However, it also leaves some of them ill-prepared for what to do with the rest of their lives when their sports dreams fizzle [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

The athletes apply this kind of vigor to training, dedicating themselves to their sport from a young age, while foregoing other aspects of youth, such as socialising, hobbies, even their studies.

South Korea’s ice dancer at Pyeongchang 2018 Yura Min grew up in the US but said her family was “culturally very Korean” and, as a child, Korean was her first language and her parents inculcated strict work habits in her from a young age.

She started skating aged six and remembers waking up at 4:30am for practice followed by a full day at school.

After school, she would go for violin, taekwondo and ballet classes in the evenings. As her talent for skating became clear, she gave up those other activities and her life began to revolve around time on the ice.

“My mom would follow me to my training, and my dad would work,” said Min.

“I only remember a handful of times where we all sat down and had dinner. I wish we could all sit around and talk about our days, but we all had other things to do.”

Physically taxing

Analysts believe junior South Korean athletes are asked to sacrifice too much, that their training regimes are physically taxing and rob them of the chance to enjoy normal, balanced youths.

“Unlike other countries, in South Korea there aren’t child athletes who compete just for the fun of it. Once South Korean kids start training, they have to give up on their studies and focus all of their time, from morning till night, on training,” Chung Hee-joon, professor of sports science at Dong-A University, told Al Jazeera.

South Korea’s job market, too, is challenging at the best of times. Thousands of university graduates are competing for a limited number of stable and well-paid jobs at large companies.

Former athletes can find it difficult to get hired – during their youth, they did not have the time to develop the kinds of skills employers look for.

A 2013 study of 3,000 former athletes by the Korea Institute of Sports Science found that roughly a third of the athletes they surveyed ended up unemployed.

“It is very difficult for athletes to get jobs other than through their parents’ connections, or taking on a family business,” Chung added.

“Nowadays, athletes tend to mostly come from wealthy families who can afford the costs of training and the risks involved.” 

But things are gradually improving. The government appears to be taking notice of the challenges faced by retiring athletes, and is allocating resources to helping them prepare for their futures.

Nowadays, athletes tend to mostly come from wealthy families who can afford the costs of training and the risks involved.

by Chung Hee-joon, professor of sports science at Dong-A University

Park Seong-hee, a professor of sports management at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, has, for nearly a decade, worked on a South Korean government programme that counsels and assists post-career athletes.

He said more South Korean athletes are making that transition successfully now.

“The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has reformed the sports system from the grassroots level and tried to build a sound ‘sports development system,'” Park said.

“The government is also developing many after-career programmes for athletes, such as English education, sports industry education, retirement programmes, and graduate school scholarships.

“Many athletes see the end of their careers as a death sentence. They often don’t have the confidence to move forward because all they have done in their lives to that point is play sports.”

Min graduated high school but decided to forego university to focus on skating.

At age 22, she still has several years of competition ahead of her, and plans to compete in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

Once she hangs up her skates, she hopes to make her career either as a coach or in another role in South Korea’s ice skating federation.

“Korea doesn’t yet have the infrastructure of coaching and training that is needed for ice dancing, and I’d like to help establish that,” she said.

South Koreans hope that in four years time, they will have a breakout athlete of their own.

Too young to compete

Many are pinning hopes on figure skating prodigy You Young who, at 13 years of age, is too young to compete in this year’s event.

She has been famous in South Korea since she caught the eyes of the masses in 2016, when, aged just 11, she became the youngest national champion in the country’s history.

You wowed the audience with her ability to pull off tricks that befuddle skaters who are older and physically more mature than her. Many hope she can follow in the footsteps of South Korea’s Kim Yuna, who won figure skating gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But reaching this level of excellence is not by accident.

You adheres to a demanding schedule that has her training for several hours daily and eschewing the time for hobbies and friends that most 11-year-olds partake in.

Between now and Beijing 2022, she will continue with her all-out training schedule.

This push comes at a time when South Korea is starting to question its custom of all-out preparation for athletic success, as well as harsh standards of preparation and sacrifice that groom countless young people for athletic dreams.

However, it also leaves some of them ill-prepared for what to do with the rest of their lives when their sports dreams fizzle.

Source: Al Jazeera