Sex abuse scandal hits South Korea's elite skating scene

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Sukhee Shim of Korea competes during the Short Track Speed Skating - PyeongChang 2018Image source, Getty Images
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Speed skating is one of Korea's most prestigious sports

The prized elite world of South Korean speed skating has been mired in scandal following a wave of allegations from female skaters who say that they were sexually abused by their coaches and that it was covered up.

For a country that is a world leader in speed skating, having won 24 Olympic gold medals, this is a serious development. Other sporting federations say they are also now investigating claims of inappropriate behaviour.

Many see this as South Korea's #MeToo movement finally being taken seriously, even if only through the prism of elite sport.

A pressure group making headlines

In the latest development, five unnamed female skaters have come forward accusing their coaches of abuse. One skater alleged that a coach forcibly kissed her and then verbally abused her when she rejected his advances.

The women, represented by a group called Solidarity for Young Skaters (SYS), made their allegations public in a news conference held at South Korea's parliament on Monday alongside a South Korean lawmaker Sohn Hye-won who has also taken up this cause.

The group said the women chose to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation from those who support their coaches and the wider skating community.

"They are very much afraid of potential retaliation and possible rejection from the community," Park Ji-hoon, a lawyer for Solidarity for Young Skaters, told the BBC.

Ms Sohn and the pressure group also called for an investigation into Jun Myung-kyu, the former national team coach and a hugely influential figure in South Korean speed skating, who they accused of concealing misconduct.

Mr Park said Mr Jun's actions had gone undetected for years because he had "influence over the Korean ice skating community... because [the] community and some politicians have protected him."

Mr Jun has denied having any prior knowledge of the allegations or that he had knowledge of the abuse that led to one of his coaches being jailed for assault.

"I wasn't in a position to know everything about alleged sexual assaults," he told a press conference on Monday.

The SYS group has urged the government to carry out a survey of all athletes in an attempt to root out sexual violence in South Korea's sporting community.

How it began

It all started in January 2018 when Olympic short-track speed skating gold-medallist Shim Suk-hee accused her former coach of repeatedly assaulting her since her teenage years.

Last September Cho Jae-beom was convicted of beating and abusing Ms Shim and other skaters. She said he had been beating her since she was seven - and had even broken her fingers with an ice hockey stick.

Image source, Getty Images
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Olympic athlete Shim Suk-hee has accused her coach of sexually abusing her

"He kicked and punched me so hard, especially on my head, that I even thought 'I could die here'", she said speaking at a court hearing last year.

Other athletes later came forward and Cho was last September sentenced to 10 months in jail for assaulting Ms Shim and three other skaters.

But in a complaint filed last month, the 21-year-old came out to accuse Cho of sexual assault.

She says the sexual assault started in 2014 when she was still a student and continued until shortly before the Pyeongchang Olympic games. His lawyers have denied this allegation.

Her fresh charge of sexual abuse led almost 250,000 in South Korea to sign a petition demanding a longer jail term for Cho.

Skating and beyond

But the problem is not limited to South Korean skating.

Former tennis star Kim Eun-hee revealed last year that her tennis coach had been sexually assaulting her since the age of 10.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Former tennis player Kim Eun-hee says she was assaulted from the age of 10

She remained silent until she ran into him at a tournament two years ago, and realised he was still coaching young tennis players.

Ms Kim filed a criminal complaint against him, and in October, he was convicted of rape with injury and sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Former judo athlete Shin Yu-yong has also accused her former high school coach of repeatedly raping her over a period of four years.

He denied the allegations, saying instead that he was romantically involved with her.

Despite this, the Korea Judo Association later said they had placed a lifetime ban on him, saying it was a "serious problem" that he had "inappropriate relations with a minor... whether or not [he] is found guilty."

South Korea's Human Rights Committee on Tuesday said it would establish an investigation team to look into the treatment of athletes.

"We consider the seriousness of violence and sexual abuse in the sports field cannot be overlooked any longer," Choi Young-ae, the Chairwoman of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea said at a press conference.