Olympic star has little to cheer about

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Olympic star has little to cheer about

She used to be a symbol of health and athleticism, but now Kim Young-hee has trouble walking or even lifting a spoon. In the 1980s, Ms. Kim, now 40, was the centerpiece of Korean women's basketball. She played professionally from 1979 to 1987 for the Hankook Cosmetics team, and was known as "The Elephant Center." She also played a big role for the national team in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when Korea took the silver medal. But in the following years her astounding height turned from a blessing to a liability she never could have dreamed of.

When Ms. Kim was in middle school she was already over the 180-centimeter mark, and still had plenty of growing to go. "At that age I still wanted to become taller, thinking that if I could grow over two meters I could become a famous basketball player," she said. "Now I regret that I didn't have my condition checked out." When she was an active player, Ms. Kim was 202 centimeters. But because of dysfunctional glands that are still pumping out growth hormones, she is still growing, and is now 205 centimeters. But the disorder has caused a host of physical maladies. In 1987 she fell unconscious, and doctors later found a benign tumor in her brain. While in the hospital, she also had to undergo treatment for diabetes and an ulcer. Five years ago her tumor reappeared in an even bigger form and she had brain surgery again. Subsequently, she contracted tuberculosis, and she started to lose her teeth one by one. All the money that she made playing basketball went to hospital bills. She receives a pension but it is very minimal.

Ms. Kim now lives in a small room in Bucheon, west of Seoul, and makes ends meet by darning socks and assembling electronics, which earns her about 500,000 won ($400) per month. Her parents, who were very supportive of her, both died recently -- her mother four years ago and her father last year -- leaving her distraught.

"All they did was take care of me all those years. I felt so guilty," says Ms. Kim. After losing her father she refused to eat and lost 30 kilograms, dropping to 90 kilograms. It was her only brother who saved her from dying. He pleaded with her day and night not to give up hope.

Other members of the L.A. Olympic team meet on a regular basis, but Ms. Kim avoids the reunions, due to her illnesses. "The last time I saw her was a year ago," says Park Chan-suk, a former teammate. "We are trying to help her, but there is only so much we can do."

by Moon Byung-joo

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