South Korea human rights body to investigate abuse in sports

In this Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, photo, Choi Young-ae, head of the National Human Rights Commission, speaks on human rights conditions in sports circles during a press conference in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea's human rights commission plans to interview possibly thousands of athletes about a culture of abuse in sports after a wave of female athletes came forward to say they had been raped or assaulted by their coaches. (Choe Dong-jun/Newsis via AP)
FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2016, file photo, first place finisher Shim Suk-hee, from South Korea, races during the women's 1,500-meter finals at a World Cup short track speedskating event at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah. More South Korean female skaters are saying they have been sexually abused by their coaches following explosive claims by two-time Olympic champion Shim that she had been raped by her former coach since she was a teen, according to group representing athletes on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's human rights commission plans to interview thousands of adult and child athletes about a culture of abuse in sports after a wave of female athletes came forward to say they had been raped or assaulted by their coaches.

The yearlong investigation will cover 50 sports and include children competing for elementary, middle and high schools, Park Hong-geun, an official from the National Human Rights Commission, said Wednesday.

He said the commission aims to interview all minor and adult athletes competing for scholastic and corporate league teams in speedskating and judo, which have been marred with sexual abuse allegations. The investigation, pushed by dozens of government officials and civilian experts, could start as early as next week and could extend beyond a year if needed.

The commission plans to issue guidelines when it concludes its largest-ever inquiry into sports, but it also could forward evidence to police for further investigation and possible criminal prosecution.

"Education processes will be a key part of the investigation because there are situations where athletes find it hard to disclose what they have been through or even recognize they had been abused or sexually harassed," Park said. "We will have to discuss with the schools and teams to figure out how to proceed with the investigation in each sport, but we plan to build it mostly around face-to-face interviews."

South Korean competitive sports in recent weeks have been hit by a growing #MeToo movement, which highlights deep-rooted problems over a brutal training culture and highly hierarchical relationships between coaches and athletes.

It began with two-time Olympic short-track speedskating champion Shim Suk-hee accusing her former coach of repeatedly raping her since she was 17. The coach, Cho Jae-beom, was the national team coach shortly before the Pyeongchang Olympics last year and is now serving a 10-month prison term for physically assaulting athletes, including Shim. Cho's lawyers said he denies sexually assaulting Shim.

A group representing speed skating athletes said Monday there were at least five more female skaters saying they were sexually abused by their male coaches, but did not reveal their names because of privacy concerns. Encouraged by Shim, female athletes in judo, taekwondo, soccer and wrestling have also accused their male coaches of sexual harassment or assault since.

Experts say abusive treatment of female athletes has long been a problem in South Korea's elite sports, which are predominantly run by men. Athletes often skip school to compete in athletic events and must live in dormitories, giving coaches often-overbearing control and leaving athletes undereducated and more vulnerable. South Korea has long associated national pride with achievement in the Olympics and other international sporting events, leaving problems overlooked as long as the athletes succeed.

After a previous inquiry into school sports, the human rights commission in 2010 recommended safeguards to the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee, including instructions and proposals for preventing abuse and providing better education. Choi Young-ae, the commission's chairwoman, criticized the KOC for ignoring the guideline for years, which she said worsened the abuse facing athletes today.

"Physical and sexual violence in (South Korean) sports does not happen incidentally, but is generated consistently under a structure," she said in a news conference on Wednesday. "A culture that puts medals and other awards over everything else has been exonerating violent behaviors and such violence has been closely associated with the sexual violence that occurs."

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