More South Korean female skaters are accusing their coaches of sexually abusing them following claims by double Olympic champion Shim Suk-hee that her former coach had repeatedly raped her.
The announcement came amid a growing #MeToo movement in South Korea’s elite sports scene, which has been notorious for brutal training cultures and hierarchical relationships between coaches and athletes.
In addition to Ms Shim, female athletes in judo, taekwondo and wrestling have also accused their male coaches of sexually abusing them.
Members of South Korea’s silver medal-winning Olympic curling team, dubbed the Garlic Girls over their hometown’s famed produce, have accused their former coaches of verbal abuse and withholding prize money.
The five-member women’s curling team became an overnight sensation after their improbable silver medal run in February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Their nickname is a nod to the famous garlic produced in their hometown in Uiseong, in southern South Korea, where they met and began playing together as teenagers.
In a news conference at South Korea’s parliament, a group called Solidarity for Young Skaters said five other skaters had been sexually abused by their coaches.
MP Sohn Hye-won, who appeared in the same news conference, said one of the alleged victims claimed she was repeatedly groped as a teenager by a coach while training at the Korea National Sport University, a powerhouse in producing Olympic athletes.
The skater said the unidentified coach would forcibly hug and kiss her and verbally abused her after she rejected his advances, Ms Sohn said.
Ms Sohn also called for an investigation into former national team coach Jeon Myeong-gyu, who is somewhat of a godfather figure in South Korean skating.
Currently a professor at KNSU, Mr Jeon has long been accused of nepotism for favouring athletes and coaches from the school in international competition and is now under suspicion of pressuring victims in order to cover up sex crimes committed by coaches he taught.
Ms Sohn said: “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.”
She added that the victims are afraid they will face retaliation if they come forward with their claims.
Mr Jeon later said at a separate news conference that he feels sorry for Ms Shim and that he did not know she had been abused. However, he denied that he attempted to cover up any abusive conduct.
“There’s no way for me to know about every act of sexual violence takes place. I am not in a position to know that much,” he said.
Ms Sohn and the skaters’ group also urged Korean Sport and Olympic Committee president Lee Kee-heung and other officials 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.
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 overbearing control, and they skip school from a young age in order to perform well at athletic events, leaving them with less education and career choices, which makes it harder for them to resist unjust treatment, critics say.
South Korea has associated Olympic achievements with national pride, and the problems regarding training cultures have often been overlooked so long as the athletes succeed.
But the pressure for change is now coming from a younger generation of athletes, led by Ms Shim, who won two gold medals in women’s short-track speed skating in the 2018 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
Ms Shim earlier this month accused her former coach, Cho Jae-beom, of repeatedly raping her since she was 17.
Cho was sacked 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 Ms Shim. Cho’s lawyers said he denies sexually assaulting Ms Shim.