Are privileges for elite athletes necessary evil?
This is the first in a series of articles aimed at helping determine whether the current system of rewarding outstanding athletes with privileges is still relevant or needs changing. — ED.
By Kang Seung-woo
Does Korea need to keep the current “old” system of awarding outstanding athletes with exemptions from mandatory military services and “unearned” diplomas from universities and colleges they gain free admission into? Some say that it is an unfair system the country used to groom elite athletes to raise national prestige, while others claim that once the privileges are taken away, it signifies the death of Korea’s national sports machine.
Recently, a professor talked indirectly about the privileges for athletes when he raised an issue over figure skater Kim Yuna’s teaching practice, arguing that as a senior at Korea University’s physical education department she lacked the qualifications to participate in teaching practice. The professor was threatened with a lawsuit by Kim’s agency and was overwhelmed by a Yu-na-supporting Internet mob.
Although the privileges for medaled athletes have existed for nearly 40 years, doubts about their wisdom first seriously came to light in 1998.
Park Chan-ho, the nation’s first export to Major League Baseball (MLB), won a gold medal at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1998 and was exempted from military service.
In addition, the members of the 2002 World Cup squad including Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung, and Korean baseball players participating in the improvised World Baseball Classic (WBC) in 2006, had their military service waived after each side got out of the group stage for the first time in history and reached the semifinals. Both exemptions were hurriedly established exemptions, which raised voices against the extreme favor.
In Korea, all able-bodied men over 20 are required to serve in the military for about two years under the country’s mandatory conscription system.
But in 1973 the military regime came up with a law that allows a male athlete who finishes first at the Asian Games or wins a medal in the Summer or Winter Olympics to skip military service after just doing four weeks of basic military training at boot camp, as part of boosting their pride as well as rewarding them for heightening national prestige.
Despite the growing complaints over the system, some say that it is still necessary for athletes.
“Athletes’ peculiar circumstances need to be considered,” said a former basketball player, who was identified by his surname Jin and put in his time with armed forces between 2001 and 2003.
“Given that athletes have to quit their jobs at an earlier age than others, the period of military service in the heyday of their youth can do much damage to their career.” He also said: “The exemption is the product of their hard work. Everybody cannot benefit from the system, as winning gold at the Asian Games or a medal at the Olympics is really backbreaking.” But those who are against it claim more than anything else that they became athletes by personal choice.
“Each athlete should consider the different conditions on his own, but why does the nation step up efforts to give advantages to them?” said Park Hyun-wook, a former military officer.
Whenever athletes bring home medals from the Olympics or Asian Games, they are labeled as national heroes who have promoted the nation’s position in the world.
But Park said there is no leg evidence that medalists improve the national brand or glory by winning medals at international competitions.
“Who remembers where the gold medalist in canoeing at the Beijing Olympics came from?” he asked.
Critics also point out that although they represent Korea, athletes mainly try to win a medal for their own personal gain and honor, and boosting the national reputation is a collateral benefit.
Another problem is that medalists from the Olympics or Asian Games are awarded monthly pension money after they reach 60. Amid escalating negative comments on the system, the Military Manpower Administration (MMA) is set to take an action to revise the current law.
Actually, the government abolished in 2007 the exemption awarded to those who reach the knockout stage of the World Cup or the penultimate round at the WBC.
“In the second half of this year, we will seek ways to fix the law through holding public hearings,” an official of the MMA said on condition of anonymity.
He added that a points system accumulating points based on athletes’ performances at international competitions or alternative service including work in the community can be options.
When Cleveland Indians outfielder Choo Shin-soo helped the Korean team win a gold medal at the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010 and avoided the military draft, the New Jersey- based Home News Tribune, criticized his exemption, saying it was ironic that he could continue his Major League career, while U.S. forces staying in Korea are exposed to North Korea in defense of the South, which was seeing growing tension due to the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Although it is understandable that Choo was sold on getting military exemption because it would be tough to abandon baseball for nearly two years while in the prime of his career.
Looking back in history, there were some renowned sportsmen who joined the military, fought in wars and even lost their lives during their heydays. Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams, the last player in MLB to bat over .400 in a single season, was called up to serve in World War II and Korean War, while Pat Tillman, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals in the National Football League (NFL), enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2002 after turning down a contract offer of $3.6 million (4.25 billion won), only to be killed by friendly fire during his service in Afghanistan in 2004.