Olympic dream turns into a nightmare for South Korea’s ‘Garlic Girls’ curlers

AFP, SEOUL

Sat, Feb 09, 2019 - Page 8

Members of 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 skipper Kim Eun-jung — known as “Annie,” after a yogurt brand — inspiring viral memes online.

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

However, 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.

However, 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 reportedly rife — even in sports as little-known and poorly-funded as curling.

The team said that 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 Sport & Olympic Committee, saying that their human rights were “being violated.”

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

In December last year, the coaches resigned.

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

The Garlic Girls narrative centered 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 medalist 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 reporters.

“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 said.

“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 [South] Koreans were touched and felt proud because of them,” he added.

In the face of the growing #MeToo movement, the South Korean government last month announced an investigation into sexual and other abuses in sport, and increased penalties for perpetrators.

“We need to walk away from the winning-at-all-costs philosophy,” South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Do Jong-hwan said.

However, 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], people forget about them when athletes are not on TV,” he said.

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

“Most [South] 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 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,” he added.