South Korean coach sentenced to seven years in prison for abusing triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon

In one of her last text message conversations with her mother, which was widely circulated in local media, Choi begged her to 'lay bare the sins' of her abusers.

Agence France-Presse January 29, 2021 14:26:56 IST
South Korean coach sentenced to seven years in prison for abusing triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon

File image of Choi Suk-hyeon. Image Courtesy World Triathlon

Seoul: A South Korean triathlon coach was sentenced to seven years in prison on Friday for physically abusing athlete Choi Suk-hyeon, who took her own life last year.

The case is among the most disturbing in a series of scandals in South Korean sports, an intensely competitive environment where deference to authority is expected.

Coach Kim Gyu-bong, Choi's former captain and an ex-teammate were responsible for her suicide and while they had expressed remorse, she was "not able to accept those apologies", the Daegu District Court said in its verdict.

Choi, who bagged bronze in the junior women's event at the 2015 Asian triathlon championships in Taipei, was found dead at her team dormitory after enduring years of physical and verbal abuse from coaching staff and teammates at her previous club.

In one of her last text message conversations with her mother, which was widely circulated in local media, Choi begged her to "lay bare the sins" of her abusers.

The court on Friday sentenced coach Kim to seven years in jail for physical abuse that it said caused Choi "to make a fatal choice at 22".

Prosecutors had initially demanded nine years in prison.

Choi's team captain Jang Yun-jung was also jailed for four years and teammate Kim Do-hwan given a suspended term of 18 months.

"The accused, abusing their power, verbally and physically assaulted Choi for a long time," the court ruled, according to Yonhap news agency.

"Even though the accused are showing remorse and seeking forgiveness, she is not able to accept those apologies."

The rulings come a week after Choi's former physical therapist was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined 10 million won for sexually and physically assaulting her in the same case.

Choi came fourth in the 2016 national championships but failed to fulfil her early promise, dropping to 14th in the same contest in 2019.

In an audio recording broadcast by cable news station YTN last year, her coach was furious she had put on weight. "You have to avoid eating for three days," he said. "You promised me you would take responsibility."

Then he said: "Clench your teeth," followed by the sound of a sharp slap.

South Korea is a regional sporting powerhouse, regularly in the top 10 medal table places at both the summer and winter Olympics.

But in an already highly competitive society where coaches hold immense sway over athletes' careers, its sports scene was long known to be rife with physical and verbal abuse.

Last week, a former national speed skating coach was sentenced to over a decade in prison for sexually assaulting double Olympic gold medallist Shim Suk-hee.

Shim hoped that the ruling "helps victims somewhere in our society to speak up in the future", her lawyer said.

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