The 22-year-old was found dead at the team dorm late last month after sending text messages to her family to “disclose sins” of people who she said abused her. The team’s coach, Kim Kyu-bong, and two athletes accused of abusing Choi have denied the allegations.
Her death, which has been ruled a suicide, is drawing renewed scrutiny of the treatment of elite athletes in South Korea’s hypercompetitive sports scene, where aspiring stars are subject to an intense regimen of training and pressure from a young age.
Park Yang-woo, South Korea’s minister of culture and sports, said he feels “heavy responsibility” for Choi’s death and vowed to set up measures to root out abusive treatment against athletes.
Choi had reported the abuse allegations to law enforcement and sports bodies but had been frustrated by the slow pace of investigations, her family said in media interviews. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said it will conduct a probe into whether the complaints had been handled properly.
At a news conference Monday, two former teammates of Choi spoke out about the physical and verbal abuse they said they endured at hands of the team’s coach, physiotherapist and fellow athletes. They gave harrowing accounts of beatings, harassment and verbal abuse at a triathlon team run by the Gyeongju city government.
“It was a closed and secretive setting where physical and verbal abuse was taken for granted,” said one teammate who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her identity. She also said the coach forced them to eat about $166 worth of bread in one sitting as a penalty for gaining weight.
“I was afraid of the brutality and oppression in the team, but the silent complicity made me believe this is what the world of athletes is like,” another teammate of Choi’s said at the news conference, held in South Korea’s legislature.
Analysts said Choi’s death highlights an entrenched culture of abuse in elite sports that has not been properly addressed even after repeated accusations by athletes.
“The deep-rooted problems of abuse in South Korea’s sporting world killed Choi,” said Huh Jung-hoon, professor of sports sciences at Chung-Ang University. “In the shadows of the country’s towering achievements in sports lies the harsh training regimen that justifies violence as long as it produces medal-winners.”
A string of South Korean female athletes in speedskating, wrestling and judo came forward with accusations of sexual and physical abuse by coaching staff over recent years.
One of the most high-profile allegations arose last year when Olympic goal medalist Shim Suk-hee accused her male coach of raping her.
“It is regrettable to see the case [of Choi] after we had set up the Sports Reform Committee to take actions following the incident of Shim Suk-hee,” Park said Monday. “We will use this occasion to eliminate the corruption and wrongdoings in the field of sports.”
In a survey of more than 1,000 professional athletes last year, South Korea’s Human Rights Commission found one-quarter and one-tenth of the respondents said they had experienced physical abuse and sexual abuse, respectively.
Huh said athletes who live in dormitories with teammates from a young age are vulnerable to potential abuse by coaching staff, who exercise control over every aspect of their lives. He also said the “cartel” between coaches and sports governing bodies makes it harder for athletes to come forward with abuse allegations out of fear of retaliation.