South Korean Triathlete’s Suicide Exposes Team’s Culture of Abuse
SEOUL, South Korea — Just after midnight on June 26, Choi Suk-hyeon, a promising South Korean triathlete, sent two text messages. The first, to a teammate, asked for help looking after her pet dog. The other, to her mother, was more ominous.
In that message Ms. Choi, 22, told her mother how much she loved her, before adding: “Mom, please make the world know the crimes they have committed.”
To her parents and former teammates, it was clear who she meant by “they.”
After Ms. Choi committed suicide, her family released a spiral-bound diary and secret recordings in which the young triathlete documented years of physical and psychological abuse she said she suffered at the hands of her team’s coach, doctor and two senior teammates.
In one recording, the team’s doctor, Ahn Ju-hyeon, can be heard repeatedly hitting her. “Lock your jaws! Come here!” Mr. Ahn is heard saying in the March 2019 recording, followed by a series of thudding strikes.
The diaries and recordings, which were reviewed by The New York Times, have set off a firestorm of criticism and national soul searching about the corruption and abuse that has long pervaded the country’s sports community.
On Monday, the Korea Triathlon Federation banned the coach, Kim Gyu-bong, and the team captain, Jang Yun-jeong, from the sport for life. Prosecutors were also preparing criminal charges against them, as well as Mr. Ahn.
周一，韩国铁人三项联合会将教练金奎峰（Kim Gyu-bong，音）和队长张允贞（Jang Yun-jeong，音）终身禁赛。检方也在准备对他们和安珠贤提出刑事指控。
Mr. Ahn, who was referred to as a doctor, but reportedly does not hold a medical degree, did not answer calls or respond to messages seeking comment and has made no public comments about the case. During a parliamentary hearing on Monday, Mr. Kim, Ms. Jang and Kim Do-hwan, another athlete accused of bullying Ms. Choi, all denied the accusations.
South Korea has taken pride in its growing prowess as a global sports powerhouse, with its top athletes winning Olympic gold medals and other prizes. But recurring scandals have revealed widespread physical violence, sexual assault and other forms of abuse against athletes, many of whom are young, vulnerable and live away from their families during training.
Young athletes live together in dormitories and routinely skip classes to attend practices, leaving them with few career choices outside of sports. Such a system gives coaches exceptional power over athletes, and other victims have said they were afraid to earlier speak up for fear they would be left without careers, and ostracized by their teammates.
In a rare example of a Korean athlete speaking out, Shim Suk-hee, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in short-track speedskating, shocked the country last year by accusing her former coach of raping her repeatedly since she was 17. The coach, Cho Jae-beom, was sentenced to 10 months in prison for physically assaulting four athletes, including Ms. Shim, between 2011 and the preparations for the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He is still fighting the rape charges in court.
两届奥运会短道速滑金牌得主沈锡希(Shim Suk-hee)就是韩国运动员中罕见的发声者，她在去年指控以前的教练从她17岁开始就多次强奸她，令全国为之震惊。该教练赵宰范(Cho Jae-beom)因在2011年到2018年备战平昌冬奥会期间对包括沈锡希在内的四名运动员实施人身侵犯，被判处10个月监禁。他仍在法庭上否认强奸指控。
The Korean cases are part of a larger global trend in which female athletes are speaking out about physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches and team doctors. In the United States, Larry Nassar, a doctor, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years for molesting scores of girls, many of them Olympic gymnasts, under the guise of giving them examinations.
While it is hard to fully understand her mind-set, Ms. Choi, 22, had sought help, filing complaints and petitions with the authorities. In the months leading up to her suicide, she had reported her case to the National Human Rights Commission, the Korea Triathlon Federation, the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee, and the police in Gyeongju City, where the team was based.
Ms. Choi told the authorities, in complaints reviewed by The Times, that Mr. Ahn had slapped, punched and kicked her more than 20 times on the day she made the recording, and fractured one of her ribs. She said she did not seek medical treatment at the time for fear of retaliation.
“She had been stressed out lately because the officials she appealed to acted as if some beating and abuse should be taken for granted in the sport,” said Ms. Choi’s father, Choi Young-hee. The authorities, he said, told Ms. Choi “that the accused denied any wrongdoing and that they didn’t have enough evidence to act, even though we gave them the audio files.”
“Our country may have advanced a lot in other sectors, but the human rights in our sports remain stuck in the 1970s and ’80s,” said Mr. Choi, a farmer. “Who is going to bring back my daughter alive?”
In a diary she began keeping last year, Ms. Choi extensively described beating, bullying and other abuse.
“I wish I were dead,” Ms. Choi wrote last July. “I wish that I were run over by a car while walking on the street or stabbed to death by a robber while asleep.”
Ms. Choi wondered whether she was “insane” or “paranoid,” as she said her abusers called her.
Ms. Choi later told the authorities that she was beaten by the doctor in March 2019 during a training trip to New Zealand as punishment for eating a peach despite her coach’s order to lose weight. In the audio recording from that day, Ms. Choi sniffled and begged for mercy, repeatedly saying, “I am sorry, sir.”
“Mr. Team Doctor is beating you for your own good,” the coach, Kim Gyu-bong, told Ms. Choi.
“Stop whining!” he said. “Or I will beat you dead myself!”
Ms. Choi, a child swimming prodigy, was selected in 2015 for the junior national triathlon team and earned three gold medals. After graduating from high school in 2017, she joined the elite triathlon team in Gyeongju.
The bullying, hazing and gaslighting began when Ms. Choi, then still a high school student, was allowed to train with the adult team in Gyeongju, she said in her complaints.
Ms. Choi said that much of the verbal abuse was led by Ms. Jang, the team’s star athlete and a national champion.
In her statements to the authorities, Ms. Choi said Ms. Jang “struck my head, pushed and punched me and repeatedly called me names.” She said Ms. Jang humiliated her in front of other teammates by calling her sexually promiscuous. In one instance, Ms. Choi said, the team’s coach forced her to kneel in front of Ms. Jang.
She cited Ms. Jang’s bullying as one of the main reasons she left the team for a year to seek medical help.
While training in New Zealand in 2016, Ms. Choi later told the authorities, her coach slapped her with a shoe. That same year, the coach and team doctor forced Ms. Choi and another athlete to eat $168 worth of bread. They were made to eat and vomit and eat again until early in the morning, Ms. Choi said.
Ms. Choi was chosen for the national team in 2018, but took the year off to receive medical counseling.
“I am back in New Zealand and this is a new start!” she wrote in her diary in January 2019 after rejoining the team for its annual training season there. “I can make a fantastic comeback! I can do it! Let’s go!”
But the abuse resumed.
“We basically like you. All the coaching staff cheer for you, but you cheated us,” the team doctor, Mr. Ahn, was recorded telling Ms. Choi. He indicated that he was punishing her because she had complained about the beatings to outsiders.
In one recording from Ms. Choi’s smartphone, her coach, Mr. Kim, can be heard hitting her once. In another, he calls her “psychotic” and orders her not to eat for three days to avoid gaining weight.
This year, Ms. Choi left Gyeongju for another team, and began filing complaints against her former teammates, coach and doctor.
Her coach, as well as Ms. Jang and Kim Do-hwan, another athlete accused of bullying Ms. Choi, did not respond to messages seeking comment and the team has not released a statement on their behalf. It was unknown if any of the three had already obtained legal counsel. It was also unknown if Mr. Ahn, the team doctor, was represented by a lawyer. In addition to looking into the abuse claims, prosecutors have also opened an investigation into money the coaching staff and Ms. Jang regularly collected from team members in the name of covering air travel, “psychological therapy” and other expenses, although the team was financed by Gyeongju City. Ms. Choi’s family alone wired more than $23,000 to them.
After Ms. Choi’s suicide, several former teammates came forward to corroborate her allegations and share stories of their own abuse, according to Lee Yong, a former coach of South Korea’s Olympic bobsled and skeleton team, who is now an opposition lawmaker.
In a news conference on Monday, two former teammates of Ms. Choi said the team was a “kingdom” ruled by the coach, Mr. Kim, and his star athlete, Ms. Jang. The women said they were beaten 10 days per month and verbal abuse was common.
The two athletes who spoke at the news conference on Monday said Mr. Ahn had touched their breasts and thighs in the name of physical therapy. The news media in South Korea granted the two athletes anonymity ahead of the news conference.
“We joined the Gyeongju team fresh out of high school. Although we dreaded the oppression and violence of the coach and the captain, everyone hushed the matter,” one of the women said. “We thought this was the life we had to endure as athletes.”