SEOUL • When Ms Kim Eun-hee was 10 years old, a primary school child with dreams of tennis stardom, her coach raped her for the first time. Then he did it again. And again. And again.
The would-be South Korean champion was too young to even know what sex was. But she knew she dreaded the repeated orders to come to his room at their training camp, the pain and the humiliation.
“It took me years to realise that it was rape,” Ms Kim said, adding: “He kept raping me for two years... He told me it was a secret to be kept between him and me.”
Now 27, Ms Kim spoke to international media for the first time and waived all rights to anonymity to reveal how female athletes in South Korea have silently suffered sexual abuse by their coaches.
South Korea is perhaps best known for its technological prowess and K-pop stars, but it is also a regional sporting power and, besides Japan, the only Asian country to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Despite its relatively small size and population, South Korea is regularly in the top 10 medal table places at both Games, and is dominant in archery, taekwondo and short-track speed skating, while packing the top positions in world women’s golf rankings.
But it remains hierarchical and patriarchal in many respects, including having a close-knit, male-dominated sports establishment – where personal connections can be almost as important as performance in forging a successful career. In a highly competitive society where winning is everything, many young athletes forego schooling or live away from families to train with their peers and coaches full-time, living in a dormlike environment for years.
The training camp system – akin to models used by Communist sporting machines like China – is credited with helping South Korea punch well above its weight on the global sporting stage. But it has proven to be the setting for abuse in several sports, especially of underage athletes controlled by their trainers.
“The coach was the king of my world, dictating everything about my daily life from how to exercise to when to sleep and what to eat,” said Ms Kim, adding that he beat her repeatedly as part of “training”.
Many victims are forced into silence in a world where going public often means the end of any aspirations to stardom.
“This is a community where those who speak out are ostracised and bullied as ‘traitors’ who brought shame to the sport,” said Mr Chung Yong-chul, sports psychology professor at Seoul’s Sogang University.
A 2014 survey commissioned by the Korean Sports & Olympic Committee showed that around one in seven female athletes had experienced sexual abuse in the previous year, but 70 per cent of them did not seek help of any kind.
Ms Kim, who is now retired from competition, said: “I was horrified to see that my rapist continued to coach young tennis players for more than a decade as if nothing had happened... I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to give him any chance to abuse little girls any more.’”
She filed a criminal complaint against him, and he was subsequently charged. Ms Kim stood just outside the court in October to hear him be convicted of rape with injury and sentenced to 10 years in prison. “I kept crying and crying, overcome with all these emotions from sadness to happiness,” she said.