Controversial Moments in South Korean International Sport

Korea BaseballIn preparation for the upcoming World Baseball Classic Finals happening in San Francisco in March of 2013, I have been reading several books.  Two of them – Victor D. Cha’s Beyond the Final Score:  The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2011) and Rachael Miyung Joo’s Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea (Duke University Press, 2012) – have reminded me of, along with introducing me to, quite a few instances of ‘controversy’ involving South Korean teams on the international sporting stage.  Some of these controversies involve issues of judging injustices, such as the infamous Kim Dong-sung and Apolo Anton Ohno short-track speedskating crash at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.  These are the types of incidents that inspired the uninspiring film Clementine (Kim Du-yeong, 2004), which begins with an Olympic tae-kwon-do match where the film’s protagonist loses due to an unfair decision by the judges.  Although not even a cameo by Stephen Seagal can save this film, the intent of including this moment of judgmental judgement within Clementine was to encourage patriotic fervor amongst South Korean movie patrons, hoping this scene would resonate with other sporting ‘injustices’ experienced by South Korean athletes.  Other sporting controversies involving Korean athletes in international sport have to do with protests, such as the growing prevalence of calls for “Dokdo Is Ours!” amongst Korean fans, most recently causing trouble at the 2012 London Olympics for the bronze medal winning South Korean men’s soccer team.

As a result of being reminded and introduced to South Korean international sporting controversies, I decided to list out some of the South Korean sporting controversies of which I am aware.  I’m sure this list is not exhaustive, so I might choose to add more later. [ I will hard-bracket the authors who provided the most details for me regarding the incident relayed.  If my summary of the incident is something I knew well before reading either book, I won’t reference either book.]YMCA Baseball

1)  Let’s begin with the introduction of Western sports to Korea, which is conveyed in the wonderful comedy staring the great Song Kang-ho, YMCA Baseball Team (Kim Hyun-seok, 2002).  The film begins with Song’s character playing hooky from his studies to play a little football (soccer).  Later he will be enticed to start playing baseball as well via YMCA missionaries.  Besides the natural competitive drama that sport provides, a sub-tension within this film revolves around Song’s character’s father seeing sport as beneath members of his family’s elite yangban status.  Partly, this is due to the privileging of yangban as those who study Confucian texts and counsel the King.  In concert, they see the life of labor, and any physical activity, as sullying their reputation.  But equally relevant here is the fact that these sports came from the West, which resulted in some Koreans criticizing “these new cultural practice as a form of cultural imperialism and a threat to ‘traditional’ Korean ways of life”  (p. 40, Joo, 2012)  These nationalist feelings resonate in the modern day with a segment of South Korean sports fans that have feelings of resentment towards South Korean athletes who leave the peninsula for the riches of Western teams, leaving South Korean teams with less elite play [Joo].Son Ki-jong

2)  During Japanese colonization of Korea, Korean long-distance runners were the Kenyans of their time.  (Interestingly, the South Korean government recently announced it will be considering giving resident status to non-Korean marathon runners to return to their days of long-distance glory.)  At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the men’s marathon gold and bronze were won by Koreans (Son Ki-jong and Nam Sung-nyong respectively), but the Japanese claimed them under the Japanese flag.  (And the International Olympic Committee still does as well.)   The Dong-a Ilbo Korean newspaper decided to smudge out the Japanese flag in their featured photo of gold medal winner Son.  This resulted in the closure of the paper and the jailing of several members of the newspaper staff.  This would become known as the “Japanese Flag Erasure Incident” (Ilchang’gi malso sagon).  References to Korean marathoners resonate with this history, such as the official Olympic poster of the 1988 Seoul Olympics [Joo].Shiri

3)  The awarding of the 1988 Olympics to South Korea meant a huge leap ahead beyond what North Korean politics/economics would ever enable.  As a result, North Korea attempted to nestle in on some of the spoils.  They tried to claim half the events even though North Korea had never before petitioned for the Olympic Games.  South Korea attempted to negotiate for North Korea to have two events popular in the north, table tennis and fencing.  North Korea refused to accept this offer and they eventually ended up with nothing.  Three months after the decision was made to offer nothing to North Korea, two North Korean spies blew up Korean Air Flight 848 while flying from Abu Dhabi to Seoul [Cha].  This incident is partly what helped create tension amongst South Korean viewers watching Shiri (Jang Kye-gu, 1999), (in Shiri the explosive is called ‘CLX’ whereas the Korean Air Flight 848 was blown up with C-4 and ‘PLX’).

Another controversy surrounding the 1988 Olympics involved the government imposed gentrification that surrounds every modern Olympics.  (For recent discussions of this issue concerning the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, see Dave Zirin’s “Letter From Rio:  Save Armando’s House From the Olympics” on  A documentary I still haven’t had a chance to see, Kim Dong-won’s Sanggye-dong Olympics (1988), details how this under-played aspect of the modern Olympics panned out in South Korea.  (Kim is the same director who did Repatriation, the widely critically-acclaimed documentary on South Korea’s, and the world’s, longest serving political prisoners.)   The film addresses the slum residents who were forcibly moved to make way for Olympic construction.  [One of the flaws of Cha’s book is that although he regularly notes the positive development aspects of securing a spot as an Olympic host, his book makes no mention of this negative side detailed in reports such as Kim’s documentary and Zirin’s article.]As One

4)  Another film reference, this time the table tennis drama As One (Korea, Moon Hyun-sung, 2012).  In that film we follow the United Korea team of both North Korean and South Korean players that competed as one for the 1991 World Table Tennis Championship (WTTC).  In the final match, there is controversy over whether the Chinese team had unfairly negotiated assistance from the WTTC judge.Kim Ohno

5)  At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, South Korean short track speedskater Kim Dong-sung was disqualified as he was engaging in what he believed were gold medal victory laps.  Instead, the medal was awarded to US skater Apolo Anton Ohno after judges deemed Kim had illegally blocked Ohno.  Being that Apolo’s father is Japanese-American only helped to fuel some South Korean sports fans prejudices.  This prejudice and feelings of injustice led South Korean netizens to make death threats towards Ohno.  The failure of the South Korean government to arrest any of the individuals making arrests led to Ohno and the U.S. boycotting a short track World Cup event in South Korea in 2003 [Joo].

6)  And that 2002 Winter Olympics incident would be referenced through a celebration gesture by midfielder Ahn Jung-hwan during the 2002 World Cup after scoring a goal against the U.S. team on South Korean soil.

7)  In 2oo3, Australian LPGA player Jan Stephenson let her racist flag fly when she was quoted in Golf Magazine making claims counter to evidence that “the Asians are killing our tour, absolutely killing it.  Their lack of emotion, their refusal to speak English when they can speak English.  They rarely speak” (Joo, 2012, p. 149).  In actuality, as LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw made clear in 2004, the presence of Asian golfers, particularly South Korean players, increased the profitability of the LPGA by increasing market presence in different regions of the world and enticing advertisers such as Samsung to sponsor LPGA tournaments.  Sadly, Stephenson’s racist/xenophobic irrationality became official LPGA policy when the LPGA implemented an ‘English-Only’ policy amongst its players in 2008.  There is no rationale that an ‘English Only’ policy promotes competition, the result being it would make it less competitive by excluding high quality golfers.  But that wasn’t why the policy was eventually dropped.  Instead, it was dropped because the LPGA was worried about the legality of the policy [Joo].Yang Olympics

8)  Another Olympics, another controversy.  In the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, South Korean gymnast Yang Tae-young was initially awarded the Male All-Around Gold Medal until the U.S. contested the scores.  The judges acknowledged  mistakes which led to a gold medal being awarded to U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm instead.

9)  Since the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the lead-up pomp and circumstance to every Olympics begins with the Olympic Torch Relay.  When the Olympic Torch Relay came through Seoul before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, many South Korean activists showed up to protest human rights in Tibet.  Chinese students in South Korea, who were encouraged to support the Olympic Torch Relay by their government, took matters into their own hands, hands that eventually contained rocks which they threw at the South Korean protesters, injuring a few [Cha].

10)  When South Korea and Japan faced off in the initial rounds of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, South Korea won twice, but because of the round-robin structure, they met again in a semi-final where South Korea lost.  Many Korean commentators and fans felt the structure of the tournament was flawed and contributed to South Korea’s failure to win the WBC that year [Joo, 2012].Dokdo

11)  When I was in Japan this summer, much was made on Japanese media about the South Korean football (soccer) athlete Park Jung-woo who, upon South Korea beating out Japan for the bronze medal, grabbed a Korean fan’s banner claiming ‘Dokdo Island Is Ours!’.  South Korea and Japan’s counter-claims to Dokdo, known as Takeshima Islands in Japan, was reaching a fever pitch this past summer, with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak making a rare trip to the islands, resulting in Japanese politicians responding in kind.  (‘Dokdo Island Is Ours!’ banners make regular appearances at athletic events where South Korean teams compete against Japanese teams.  It shows up at WBCs and even showed up in Benson Lee’s terrific 2007 film Planet B-Boy as a chant of encouragement before the South Korean crew does battle on stage with the Japanese crew.)  As a result of this political gesture, footballer Park was informed by the International Olympic Committee that he could not attend the medal ceremony.  Park was permitted to celebrate with the South Korean President after returning to South Korea and was given the standard reward in South Korea for Olympic medal-winning males, exemption from the required two years of military service.

This exemption from military service received by South Korean athletes is itself a controversial political policy.  As Joo notes, younger male and female Koreans tend to approve of this exemption, but older Koreans, particularly men who have already performed their military duties, tend to resent this exemption for athletes since contrary to assumptions about military duties benefiting men in South Korea, required service at such a key developmental moment in the lives of South Korea men obstructs certain life pursuits, such as returning to college with knowledge gaps in fast-moving subjects such as computer science  [Joo].Shin

12)  Of all the judging injustices imposed on South Korean Olympic athletes, this one at the 2012 London Summer Olympics still makes me cry.  Female South Korean fencer Shin Lam had believed she had advanced to the gold medal round when the judge said the clock was incorrect and a second was added on to the time.  That was all the time needed for Germany’s Britta Heidemann to strike and send Shin to the bronze medal match instead.  To protest in fencing, you must stay on the podium.  For some reason, the fencing folks took about an hour to decide.  All this time, Shin sat on the podium crying.  (Crap, my tears are welling again.)  And in the tradition of South Korean judging injustices, Shin appeal was denied, the crowd boo-ed, and Shin went on to lose the bronze medal match.

So as we ready ourselves for future WBCs and Olympics, what injustices/controversies await South Korean athletes only time will tell.