Trigger Warning: This article contains potentially distressing content such as sexual assault, verbal and physical abuse.
South Korean national triathlete, Choi Sook-Hyun has reportedly committed suicide on 26 June after filing a litany of complaints about abuse she had suffered at the hands of her coach and team doctor.
The story ignited mass outrage against the Korea Sport and Olympic Committee (KSOC) for allowing athletes to be subjected to such appalling verbal, physical and mental abuse. It also brought the public’s attention back to a similar case in 2018 whereby South Korean Olympic skater Shim Suk-Hee became the first woman to make allegations of sexual and physical abuse in the hands of her coach, who ended up serving 10 months in jail. The shocking case shed light on the culture of fear and abuse that is used to push athletes to gain medals for the nation. Not to mention the lack of justice for women who speak up against their abuser.
22-year-old Choi had filed multiple complaints regarding the treatment she has been receiving, but was reputedly frustrated at how slow the process was. According to Choi’s family, the investigation process was significantly deterred by the lack of colleagues willing to give testimonies due to an immense fear of backlash from their coaches. This led Choi, a victim of constant and habitual assault, to take her own life.
The case sparked even more outrage when the local media news outlet, YTN TV released audio recordings and text messages of the alleged abuse that Choi went through as her parents went public with the allegations against South Korea’s sporting authorities. The recordings were reportedly done by Choi herself.
In the audio tapes, Choi was verbally and physically abused whenever she gained weight or did not meet her weight loss target. One of the recorded conversations involved the triathlon team official telling her to “starve for 3 days” because she made the “mistake” of gaining weight and should “take responsibility” for it.
Another incident recorded in March 2019 detailed how Choi was assaulted by her team doctor. The doctor and a senior member of the triathlon team could be heard slapping and kicking Choi in the face and stomach over 20 times and even pushing her head against a wall for a duration of 20 minutes. The chilling incident emphasised the normality of this type of abuse as the doctor and coach could be heard chatting casually in the midst of terrorising this young woman.
The fixation on Choi’s weight gain had even led to the team officials forcing Choi to eat US$166 worth of bread to the point of vomiting, before telling her to repeat the process. More evidence of mistreatment was found in Choi’s journal where she recounts multiple instances of being “beaten like a dog” and expressed extreme suicidal thoughts at the face of such blatant abuse.
According to Yonhap News, Choi had “sought help from many public institutions but everyone ignored her pleas.” She had filed a complaint to the KSOC in April seeking an investigation to which the committee has denied ignoring her complaint. They said that, “the committee has assigned a female investigator after receiving Choi’s plea in early April.”
In a separate statement regarding Choi’s death, South Korea’s top governing body for sports had this to say, “The committee finds it very regrettable that such an incident happened again even as we have been making efforts to prevent violence and sexual assaults and to protect athletes’ human rights.”
As feminism movements and the fight for women’s rights continue to gain momentum in South Korea, as well as discussions on mental health and its importance, the death of Choi has caused a massive public uproar. Thousands have signed a petition to South Korea’s presidential office demanding for third party investigations into the allegations made by Choi.
Our deepest condolences to the Choi family.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had self-harming thoughts, please reach out Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) via their 24-hour hotline at 1800 221 4444 or email at email@example.com. Samaritans of Singapore provide round the clock emotional support for those in distress, manned by trained volunteers. Click here for more information.