[Newsmaker] Scandal shines light on skating union’s mistreatment of athletes


South Korea’s speed skater Noh Seon-yeong had one of the most dramatic weeks of her life.

The 28-year-old, who had initially been selected to represent South Korea in the women’s team at the PyeongChang Olympics, was only told last week that an administrative error by the Korea Skating Union had cost her her spot on the team.

Heartbroken, she openly spoke out against the KSU through her social media account, saying she “no longer was proud” to represent her country. On Friday, however, two Russian skaters did not make the IOC’s final list of Olympic athletes, a dramatic turn of events that automatically allowed Noh to regain her eligibility. 

Speedskater Noh Seon-yeong. (Yonhap)

Although Noh said on Monday that she has decided to compete at the Olympics after all, the scandal has revealed the KSU’s long-standing problems with its relationship with the nation’s athletes, as well as its mishandling of administrative affairs.

Noh has competed in three Winter Olympics, including the 2010 Vancouver Games as well as the 2014 Sochi Games. She is also the older sister of late short track speed skater Noh Jin-kyu. The late Noh, who had been initially selected to represent South Korea for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, was diagnosed with bone cancer following an injury while training in the same year. He ended up not competing at Sochi. The athlete died in 2016.

Last week, before she regained her eligibility to compete at PyeongChang, Noh also accused the KSU of ignoring her late brother’s ill health four years ago, even when he was in great pain, so that the nation could “gain a gold medal through him.” The late skater had been considered as one of South Korea’s best bets to earn gold medals at Sochi at the time.

In the past, Noh Seon-yeong had repeatedly said she would like to dedicate her Olympic effort at PyeongChang to her late brother, who never got to compete at Sochi in spite of many years of rigorous training.

“Jin-kyu was used to win a gold medal and now I’ve been excluded from the chance to win,” she wrote in an Instagram post which has since been deleted. “The KSU has taken away my family’s last hope.”

It is not the first time that the KSU has been accused of mistreating the nation’s athletes.

One of its biggest scandals in the past involved short-track speed skater Ahn Hyun-soo, or Victor An, who defected to Russia in 2011 after claiming factional divisions within the KSU made it impossible for him to continue his training in South Korea.

Having already won three gold medals in the 2006 Winter Olympics as a South Korean skater, Ahn won three gold medals for his adopted country, Russia, in the 2014 Winter Games.

More recently, it was reported that Shim Suk-hee, a short track speed skater and an Olympian scheduled to compete at PyeongChang, was physically abused by her coach during training last month. The athlete had to seek medical attention after the incident.

The KSU faced heavy public criticism after it was revealed that its officials lied to the Presidential Office that Shim had the flu, when she was in fact absent at the training site following the abuse, when President Moon Jae-in visited the nation’s short-track skaters on Jan. 17.

For Noh, it was the KSU’s administrative mix-up that almost made her years of training go to waste.

The organization only belatedly learned that ISU states all chosen skaters in team pursuit must also be ranked within the top 32 in individual races, after Noh had already been selected as one of its three team pursuit skaters.

Noh, who was ranked 34th, was told that she can no longer compete at PyeongChang last week, although she became eligible again on Friday after two Russian skaters did not make the final cut.

“They never offered an apology,” Noh said in an interview with local broadcaster jTBC last Thursday. “I was simply told to leave the training site.”

The athlete, who was reluctant to train again even after she became qualified again, decided to compete at PyeongChang after the KSU president Kim Sang-hang reportedly apologized in person after making a visit to her house.

The KSU also fired Shim Suk-hee’s abusive coach and permanently banned him from re-entering the union, after facing mounting public criticism.

“We promise such events (like the one involving Noh Seon-yeong) will not repeat in the future and will introduce measures as soon as possible,” the KSU president Kim said in a public statement.

Still, critics say the KSU needs a thorough reform to better protect the country’s athletes and their rights. “The way KSU handled the recent scandals was very disappointing,” wrote culture critic Ha Jae-keun in his column for local internet site Dailian. 

“(Before facing public criticism), the KSU was blaming the ISU for the case of Noh Seon-yeong, rather than offering a sincere apology. If the organization is not willing to change, there is no guarantee that there will not be another Ahn Hyeon-soo (who would give up his or her Korean passport only to train elsewhere).”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)

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