When romantic actress Lee Si-young swapped her glamorous roles in South Korean dramas for boxing gloves in a bid to win an Olympic medal, her victories triggered a storm of protest that has marred her unexpected success in the ring.
The 31-year-old, better known for her roles in TV shows such as Wild Romance and Boys Before Flowers, had tears of joy in her eyes when she defeated 19-year-old Kim Da-som by 22 points to 20 in the 48kg class at the South Korean national team tryouts late last month.
However, her victory triggered a bitter battle in which the Korean Amateur Boxing Federation (KABF) was accused of giving Lee an unfair advantage in a bid to use her celebrity status to boost its fan base at the expense of the sweat and passion of her relatively unknown opponent.
“The match was preposterously biased — if the umpire gave Lee Si-young’s slaps on the wrist 22 points, then Kim should have been given at least 50 points,” Byun Hee-jae, a conservative political commentator and a self-proclaimed boxing fan, said on his Twitter feed. “This country has gone so crazy that being pretty gets more points even in boxing.”
The boxing federation, though, said that selecting who is going to represent the nation cannot be manipulated or bribed.
“Play the video and you will see that Kim scored less valid punches than Lee. Lee’s face is quite clean — no major bruises or swelling. She even went out for a photo shoot two days after the match,” KABF senior manager Choi Hee-kuk said.
Lee, who has been boxing since 2010, and her manager declined to comment, despite multiple attempts to contact them. They referred inquiries to officials at the Incheon City Boxing club, where she is a member.
“She [Lee] tried hard, fought well and won. If people think she won because she is pretty, then this is rather a reverse discrimination against her,” said Oh Jeong-kyu, assistant manager at the Incheon club.
Internet opinion was divided, with some instead rooting for Lee.
“I cried reading her story. She is very beautiful and passionate,” Marcella Kim said on Twitter.
Whether Lee could actually represent her country depends on her bulking up, since neither the Olympics nor the Asian Games have anything lighter than a 51kg class for women’s boxing. She has said she intends to do so.