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Ex-teammates of late triathlete make more abuse allegations against staff

Sports 11:28 July 06, 2020

SEOUL, July 6 (Yonhap) -- Former teammates of a late triathlete who took her own life after enduring years of apparent abuse claimed Monday physical and verbal harassment was rampant on their semi-pro club.

In a press conference at the National Assembly, the two triathletes, whose identities were being withheld, supported allegations made earlier by Choi Suk-hyeon, with whom they had competed with on the Gyeongju City Hall team in Gyeongju, 370 kilometers southeast of the capital.

Two teammates of the late South Korean triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon speak at a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on July 6, 2020, in support of Choi's allegations of physical and verbal abuse by her coaching staff. Their faces are blurred to protect their identities. (Yonhap)

Choi, a junior bronze medalist at the 2015 Triathlon Asian Championships, was found dead on June 26 in her home in Busan, 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul. In her last text message to her mother, Choi asked to "expose crimes of those people," in an apparent reference to her alleged abusers.

In months leading up to her passing, Choi had claimed that she was repeatedly struck by her coach, team therapist and two older teammates. She had also been asked to go three days without eating because she'd failed to keep her weight down, and she had once been forced to gobble up 200,000 won (US$167) worth of pastries as a punishment for ordering a soft drink during a team meal.

The two teammates said they had been afraid of repercussions, but they worked up the courage to support Choi and uncover the truth. They apologized to Choi's surviving family for not acting sooner and not joining Choi in seeking criminal charges against the alleged abusers.

"Our triathlon team at Gyeonggju City Hall was an empire for the coach and a select few athletes," they said. "Physical and verbal abuses were common occurrences. The coach constantly hit us, and the team captain was a bully too."

The two teammates supported Choi's claims of abuse and said they are also victims.

"We got hit more than 10 days out of a month, while we were competing in Gyeongju," they added. "I hope that these abusers will admit their guilt and receive due punishment."

The late South Korean triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon receives a gold medal at the 2013 National Martine Sports Games in Ulsan, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul, in these photos provided by Choi's surviving family on July 2, 2020. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

In months leading up to her passing, Choi had pressed abuse charges against her coach, team therapist and two older teammates in Gyeongju. In late May, Gyeongju police forwarded Choi's case to the prosecution and recommended an indictment on charges of assault and extortion. It wasn't until last Thursday that Daegu District Public Prosecutors Office said it had been investigating the case and will soon interrogate those facing abuse allegations.

In April, Choi also filed a petition with the Korea Triathlon Federation and the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee (KSOC), seeking punishments for her alleged abusers. Neither of the organizations took action.

Choi had made audio recordings of occasions when she was physically and verbally abused by the team staff and teammates, and these disturbing clips had been reported on television news, sparking further outrage nationally.

Choi's tragedy is the latest illustration of a deeply hierarchical, "win-at-all-costs" sporting culture in South Korea, where coaches or older teammates have been known to resort to abusive behavior against younger athletes in the name of getting the most out of them.

It's also a somber reminder of just how far the country has to go to eliminate physical, verbal, emotional and even sexual abuses in sports. It was about 1 1/2 years ago that Cho Jae-beom, former coach for Olympic short track speed skating champion Shim Suk-hee, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for physical assault while also facing trial for sexual assault charges.

National sports officials went up in arms over one of the most high-profile abuse cases involving an athlete, but their repeated calls for stern measures ring hollow now in light of Choi's passing. The national sports community has balked at outside authorities' attempts to reform, but it has to prove capable of cleaning up itself.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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