Olympic dream turns to nightmare for S. Korea's 'Garlic Girls'

South Korean women's curling team has endured a nightmare year after being the unexpected heroines of last year's Winter Olympics.

Published : Feb 08, 2019 12:53 IST , Seoul

South Korea's women's curling team competes at Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
South Korea's women's curling team competes at Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

South Korea's women's curling team competes at Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The South Korean women's curling team were the unexpected heroines of last year's Winter Olympics, but since their impressive run to the final they have endured a nightmare year.

Known as the “Garlic Girls” for their rural hometown where the pungent bulb is a speciality, all five have the surname Kim and use food-based nicknames to differentiate themselves.

Rank outsiders at the start of the Pyeongchang Games, they upset top teams Canada and Switzerland and shot to fame, with the wide glasses and trademark stare of skip Kim Eun-jung -- known as “Annie”, after a yoghurt brand -- inspiring viral memes online.

In the end, “Annie”, with “Pancake” Kim Yeong-mi, her sister “Steak” Kyeong-ae, “Chocho” Kim Cho-hi and “Sunny” Kim Seon-yeong, named after sunny-side up eggs, fell at the last hurdle and had to be content with silver -- and national stardom.

But months later, they went public with allegations of abuse and exploitation by their coaches, part of a wide-ranging scandal that has engulfed South Korea's sports establishment.

Sidelined from the national team and unable to take part in international competitions, the Garlic Girls have plummeted from seventh to 111th in the world rankings.

South Korea is a regional sporting power, regularly in the top-10 medal tables at the summer and winter Olympics.

But in an already intensely competitive society, winning is virtually everything in its elite sports community where coaches hold immense power over athletes' careers.

Physical and verbal abuse are known to be rife -- even in sports as little-known and poorly-funded as curling.

The team said their coaches verbally abused them countless times, had banned them from talking to other athletes, did not share how donation and prize money was being spent and censored their social media accounts and letters from fans.

The curlers were “miserable” and in a “desperate situation”, they wrote in a letter to the Korean Sports and Olympic Committee (KSOC), saying their human rights were “being violated”.

“We've reached a point where it has become unbearable,” they said.

The coaches resigned in December.

- 'Abuse is nothing new' -

Before Pyeongchang, curling was largely unknown to South Korea, which did not even have a team until the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The Garlic Girls narrative centred around the unlikely success of obscure athletes with limited resources, but their revelations showed the extent of abuse in South Korean sports, said Choi Dong-ho, director of the Center for Sports Culture research group.

Their accusations came amid a series of allegations of sexual and other abuses by coaches in disciplines ranging from skating to judo and taekwondo, including from double Olympic short track gold-medallist Shim Suk-hee.

While many South Koreans found the curlers' revelations shocking, verbal abuse, corruption and intrusive control were “nothing new” in the country's sports world, Choi told AFP .

“Abuse tends to be more prevalent in communities of little-known sports, as they are more close-knit and even isolated from the outside world,” he added.

“I think people were shocked not necessarily because of what the curlers revealed, but because they were such unexpected stars at the Pyeongchang games -- so many Koreans were touched and felt proud because of them.”

- New generation -

In the face of the growing #MeToo movement, the government in January announced an enquiry into sexual and other abuses in sport, and increased penalties for violators.

“We need to walk away from the winning-at-all-costs philosophy,” said sports minister Do Jong-hwan.

South Korea's sports minister, Do Jong-hwan (right).

But Yeo Jun-hyung, a former skating coach who now leads a group of activists against abuse in sports, cautioned that the issue might rapidly fade from public and media consciousness.

“That's the thing about sports” in South Korea, he said, “people forget about them when athletes are not on TV.”

And Choi pointed out the campaign against abuse was initiated by the athletes themselves -- including the curlers -- rather than the authorities.

“Most Korean athletes in the past, many of whom work as coaches or sports officials today, shared this thinking that if you want to succeed in the sports field, you just have to endure everything -- even if it means being being beaten and cursed all the time,” he said.

“But the new generation is saying that they are not going to put up with it anymore.”

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