South Korea: Sexual abuse claims rock speed skating

Skaters scene rocked by #MeToo moment as solidarity group alleges five more athletes were abused by their coaches.

Shim Suk Hee
Pressure for change is coming from a younger generation of South Korean athletes, including a two-time Olympic gold medalist [File: David J Phillip/AP]

An athletes’ group has raised further allegations of sexual abuse in South Korean speed skating in the wake of claims by two-time Olympic champion Shim Suk-hee that her former coach repeatedly raped her. 

A group representing the athletes, the Solidarity for Young Skaters, said it found five more skaters who were sexually abused by their coaches but did not reveal any names, citing privacy concerns. 

It made the announcement at a news conference at South Korea‘s parliament on Monday.

Representative Sohn Hye-won, who appeared at the same news conference, said one of the alleged victims said she was repeatedly groped by a coach as a teen while training at the Korea National Sport University (KNSU), a powerhouse in producing Olympic athletes.

“During the training, the coach forcibly hugged and kissed the skater, saying he was correcting her posture. Also, the coach demanded her to watch a movie together and have a meal together outside (the ice rink). When the skater rejected his demand, he lashed out at her,” Sohn said.

The athlete has since left the sport.

‘Frequent sexual abuse’

Sohn called for an investigation into former national team coach Jeon Myeong-gyu. The legislator says the coach “was fully aware of the situation, but he did not take any actions”.

“Jeon is called a godfather of ice skating and has a powerful presence in the field,” Sohn said.

Currently a professor at KNSU, Jeon has long been accused of nepotism by favouring athletes and coaches from the school in the international competition. He is now under suspicion of pressuring victims to cover up sex crimes committed by coaches he taught.

“There has been frequent sexual abuse in the skating scene, but the offenders in most cases did not receive punishment; that’s because the coaches were members of the KNSU circle led by Professor Jeon Myeong-gyu,” Sohn said.

“Skaters believe that Jeon is involved in whitewashing the sexual assault cases in which their colleagues were victimised,” she said. “Due to such circumstance, victimised athletes are reluctant about testifying. They are afraid.”

Jeon has not spoken publicly about the allegations against him.

Sohn and the skaters’ group also urged Korean Sport and Olympic Committee President Lee Kee-heung and other leaders of the body to step down for failing to safeguard athletes.

The committee said it plans to launch a special committee to investigate abuse across sports and create new rules to protect athletes.

#MeToo Moment

The skater groups’ announcement comes amid a growing #MeToo movement that is rocking South Korea’s elite sports scene. The movement is reminiscent of the United States‘ 2018 sexual abuse scandal revolving around Larry Nasser, a US gymnastics team doctor serving a sentence of up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing Olympic champion Aly Raisman and other gymnasts. 


Experts say abusive treatment of female athletes has long been a problem in South Korean elite sports, which are often run by men.

Athletes must live in dormitories, where coaches often exercise broad control, and they skip school from a young age in order to perform well at athletic events, leaving them with a poor education and few career choices. This makes it harder for them to resist unjust treatment, critics say.

South Korea has equated Olympic achievement with national pride. Problems with the training culture have often been overlooked as long as athletes perform well.

But the pressure for change is coming from a younger generation of athletes, led by Shim, who won two gold medals in women’s short-track speed skating in the 2018 and 2014 Winter Olympics.

In December, Shim accused her former coach Cho Jae-beom of repeatedly raping her since she was 17.

Others speak up

Cho was fired as the national team coach shortly before the Pyeongchang Olympics last year and is now serving a 10-month prison term for physically assaulting athletes, including Shim. Cho’s lawyers said he denies sexually assaulting Shim.

Shim’s claims have encouraged other female athletes to speak up about the alleged abuse they suffered from their male coaches.

Shin Yoo-young, a former judo athlete, has also accused her former high-school coach of repeatedly raping her. On Friday, the Korea Judo Association announced that they had issued the coach a lifetime ban.

Lee Ji-hye, a former taekwondo athlete, said in a television interview that she had been sexually abused by her former coach for five years, starting from when she was in sixth grade.

The Korea Wrestling Federation is also investigating claims that some female members of the national team were groped by a coach while training for the Jakarta Palembang Asian Games last year.


Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies