South Korean Scandal Accused of Meddling in Sports Affairs

David Lee, Nov. 22, 2016, 9:36 a.m.


In yet another twist to the scandal that has engulfed President Park Geun-hye, there are growing suspicions that her rogues' gallery of cronies and hangers-on meddled extensively in the world of Korean sports.

One bizarre allegation is that they tried to undermine figure skating superstar Kim Yu-na. Kim, the widely beloved Olympic figure skating champion, allegedly got on the wrong side of one of the more colorful drinking buddies of Park's close friend Choi Soon-sil, a commercial director and minor TV celebrity by the name of Cha Eun-taek.

Cha hit on the unusual scheme of inventing a form of exercise which was embraced under dubious circumstances by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism staffed with Choi's cronies, and saw the president herself hop about in flannels and garish trainers at a public demonstration in 2014.

The ministry spent W200 million on creating the aerobic exercise but failed to promote it with any success since the moves were more suitable for girl bands than a mature population.

Kim Yu-na, perhaps smelling a rat, declined to take part in the demonstration citing other commitments, which allegedly so angered the ministry that it put her on a blacklist. Rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae and gymnast Yang Hak-seon attended the event, and rumors abound in cyberspace that they profited from the endorsement.

This outgrowth of the scandal turns on evidence that the ministry struck Kim from a list of candidates for the highest award given to top athletes in 2015, when she was at the height of her popularity and busy promoting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The Korean Olympic Committee nominates athletes for the honor every year for promoting Korea over the course of their career. Previous winners had to be at least 50 years of age, but that year the committee wanted to amend selection criteria amid charges of age discrimination. But the ministry refused to approve the change. First started in 2011, the award itself has repeatedly been criticized for irregularities in selection and evaluation as guidelines changed every year.

As a result, Kim didn't get the award despite winning by far the highest score in an online vote. The age limit was scrapped after a fresh wave of criticism in March this year and Kim finally received the honor last month.

Son, who gamely strutted along at the 2014 event, is also a customer at the luxury Chaum Clinic in Gangnam, where Park enjoyed millions of won's worth of free anti-aging treatments under a soap opera alias, suggesting yet another layer of entanglement.

But supporters say the ministry probably made Son an offer she could not refuse, which has been the modus operandi of Choi's inner circle in several cases.

Son's agency Galaxia SM said in a statement that the gymnast accepted the invitation to the 2014 demonstration out of "goodwill" and urged netizens to refrain from posting "groundless rumors." It said the athlete visited the Chaum Clinic among other hospitals to treat a chronic ailment.

Yang Hak-seon denies any impropriety, telling the Chosun Ilbo, "I'm not sure what benefits I received after attending the event."

 

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