SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA -- Kim Jip is only half joking when he says South Korea's Olympic training center is a sports dictatorship.
The center, dedicated to establishing South Korea as a major power at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, puts hundreds of athletes through some of the toughest training in the world.
Some coaches even carry paddles to encourage athletes not making their best effort.
"It's very much a dictatorship. It's Spartan training," said Kim, head of the Korea Amateur Sports Association Training Center. "They train like crazy."
"It's very tough. The training load is much more than in other countries," said boxing coach Boris Gitman, one of several foreign coaches hired to work with Korean athletes.
Koreans see their Olympic role as proof of how their country, almost overnight, has become one of Asia's economic powerhouses. They want to crown that achievement with a big haul of Olympic medals.
South Korea surprised many observers by emerging as the second largest medal winner at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, with programs developed at the center.
"Somebody said the Asian Games were a miracle, but it was just hard training," Kim said. "Our Olympic plan is simple. First training, second training, third training."
Kim is very proud of the sprawling complex that sits amid carefully manicured lawns and forests on the edge of the Seoul metropolis.
The center was founded after South Korea failed to win a medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games. "We learned if we wanted to become a really strong sports country we had to have a center," Kim said.
The complex has everything from gyms, indoor and outdoor ice rinks and tracks to swimming pools and dormitories.
A staff of 130 coaches and sports experts along with 200 support workers run the program for about 1,000 athletes, most of whom train and live five days a week at the center. Police guard the complex and enforce a strict 10 p.m. curfew.
Center officials say South Korea's best Olympic chances will be in boxing, judo, wrestling, archery and women's field hockey.
To get into the center, athletes must be selected by the governing association of their sport and then pass a full review by center officials.
"Once they get here we control everything, including training and schedule," Kim said.
Athletes are evaluated monthly and anyone falling below standard is dismissed. Each athlete knows, Kim said, that there are dozens of others waiting to take their place.
"We make them fight for the one place," he said.
The boxers' day starts at 6 a.m. with calisthenics, 25 laps around a 400-meter track in 37 minutes, shadow boxing and then push-ups and sit-ups to relax before breakfast.
The main boxing training -- where the coaches carry paddles to encourage athletes -- comes during a three-hour afternoon session with plenty of rope jumping, sit-ups and running.
Kwon Hyon-gyu, captain of the boxing team, says the routine is brutal. "I feel like dashing out of the gym and packing for home several times a day," he said.
Gitman, a former Soviet national boxing coach who is now a Canadian citizen, says he has never seen such demanding training. But he is more amazed by the willingness of Korean athletes to meet the tough standards.
"In the West, coaches have a lot of trouble getting athletes to train hard. But here they want to do it, they never say 'no,' " he said.
Judo coach Chang Gun-Kyon, who won a silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, says mental training is important, too. "The boys are doing well. Mainly we're getting their minds in the best shape," he said while watching 22 black belts toss each other around.
Korean athletes who win gold medals can look forward to a lifetime government pension of at least $750 a month -- a large sum by Korean standards. Top stars can expect more. Korean newspapers reported that sprinter Lim Choon-ae received about $175,000 after winning three gold medals in the Asian Games.
"Champions here are national heroes like nowhere else in the world," Gitman said.
The training can sometimes be more than just tough. KASA officials said Lim was hospitalized with ear damage after her coach beat her for poor practice times.
But KASA officials said the incident should not be misunderstood and Lim was quoted as saying she was eager to get back to work with coach Kim Pon-il.
"We understand him, and it should not be dealt with on an emotional level," said an association spokesman.