Where the flesh meets the sand

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Where the flesh meets the sand

Korean wrestling, or ssireum, is at a crossroads. With its popularity waning, its future may depend on a small group of young athletes, sweating profusely, at the Dong Yang Vocational School in Seoul. These are the future stars of ssireum, who train under the strict guidance of a bear-sized coach named Jang Soon-ho.

“Let’s do some ssireum, guys! What are you waiting for?” bellows Mr. Jang, 34, who wrestled in college and has been training the Dong Yang team for eight years.

Nine brawny athletes begin grappling in an open-sided tent. There were 14 wrestlers a few weeks ago, but five are laid up with injuries. Ssireum is not a sport for sissies.

Last year, there were 20 Dong Yang students bold enough to wrestle; the year before, some 30 kicked up the sand. “Compared with five years ago, our player pool has shrunk considerably,” says Mr. Jang, noting how the declining interest in ssireum at his school mirrors how the sport is doing nationwide. Nevertheless, a core group of students is determined to keep the historic sport alive.

Although ssireum is a traditional sport, it has been surpassed in popularity by modern sports such as baseball, basketball and soccer. Ssireum is a distant cousin of sumo wrestling, which is still a major spectator sport in Japan, where the Japan Sumo Association dates back to the Edo period and 1603.

Ssireum can trace its roots to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), although some historians believe it may have originated earlier. The sport is a rather straightforward battle of strength: Two wrestlers charge one another inside a circle; then begin pushing, pulling, throwing and tripping each other. The goal is to force some part of the opponent’s body -- a part that is above the knee -- to the ground.

To throw their foes off balance, the players grab at each other’s sabba, a rope fashioned out of cloth that is tightly bound around the waist and right thigh. Matches last two minutes, with a break midway through the battle. There are single bouts, best of three, and best-of-five matches.

Despite the summer heat, Mr. Jang runs his team through about 50 matches each day. “Pull the sabba, dammit,” he yells at his wrestlers. “Because if you aren't pulling it, you aren’t mastering ssireum.”

The best wrestler on the team is also one of the best in the nation. Chung Jee-woong, a 17-year-old high-school freshman, is the topranked amateur in the 70-kilogram class. Students have seven weight classes; professionals have two.

Mr. Chung has been training since he was in the fourth grade and plans to pursue a professional career after college. “For me, the charm of the sport is its traditional aspect,” says Chung, who never misses a workout inside the team's sweltering tent, which covers a 15-by-13 meter plot of coarse brown sand.

A roaring fan, just over Mr. Chung’s shoulder, barely makes a ripple inside this stifling, vinyl-covered blast furnace. The perspiration rolls off Mr. Chung and his eight teammates following a 30-minute run inside the tent's perimeter.

Despite the dedication of wrestlers like Mr. Chung, ssireum is facing a crisis on both the amateur and professional levels. Pro bouts typically pull just 3,000 to 4,000 spectators a night, hardly enough to generate corporate sponsorship except around the holidays when the television networks go trolling for traditional forms of entertainment.

The number of professional ssireum teams in Korea has dwindled to three, down from eight in 1995. There are only 42 registered professionals wrestling in the two weight classes: Wrestlers weighing more than 100 kilograms are in the baekdu class, and those under 100 kilograms are in the hanra class.

This is too small of a group to absorb the young athletes coming out of Dong Yang and Seoul’s two other schools with ssireum squads, let alone teams from the nation’s other high schools. Students recognize this, and perhaps this is another reason why many young athletes are wary about dedicating themselves to a sport that appears to have limited opportunities and an uncertain future.

In addition, the ssireum athletes’ careers are usually over by their early 30s, which is much shorter than in other sports, such as golf. Also, earnings are limited and the sport offers little promise for the years following retirement.

The starting salary for professional wrestlers is a mere 30 million won ($25,000). Because the pool of professional wrestlers is so small, only a few make anything near what would be called big bucks. Perhaps the best known is Kim Kyung-soo, who earns about 150 million won wrestling for the team sponsored by LG Investment Securities.

“Ssireum is not exactly a popular sport, and that is a fact,” concedes Mr. Jang. He lists numerous reasons for its declining popularity. No stadium is dedicated to ssireum, he says. That lack of a permanent home impedes corporate patronage, profits and the wrestlers’ status with the public.

In addition, there are relatively few days of ssireum competition, many fewer than the sumo wrestling season in Japan, says Min Byungkwan, a spokesman for the Korea Ssireum Organization. “But it is too risky to increase the competitions because we don’t know how many people are going to show up for the matches,” Mr. Min says.

In Japan, sumo wrestling matches are held for 15 days of every odd-numbered month, or a total of 90 days a year. In Korea, ssireum tournaments run four days each month, or 48 days a year.

Sumo wrestling is a national sport in Japan, with about 800 athletes registered for league competition. Sumo wrestlers tend to be a lot bigger than their Korean counterparts because there are no weight classes in Japan.

Sumo wrestlers also emphasize different techniques, with a focus on shoving and slapping as well as wrestling. In ssireum, it’s grappling only; open-handed strikes are banned.

Weight is what drove Kim Hong-min, another member of Mr. Jang’s team, to ssireum. Kim weighed 90 kilograms when he was a sixth grader. “So I started to do something that fit my size,” he says. Mr. Kim, now 18 and a junior at Dong Yang, has bulked up to a few kilograms shy of 120.

“I can’t quit now,” he says. “I want to move on, hopefully, and have a career in the pro ranks.”

While Mr. Kim and his coach embody the ambitions that drive the sport, their efforts will be in vain if they can’t convince young Koreans to attend wrestling matches in substantial numbers. The Ssireum Association estimates that half of the spectators at tournaments these days are in their 50s.

“People in their 50s and 60s are the bulk of our audience,” says Kim Ik-hwan, the manager of the LG Investment Securities team. “While we have to focus our efforts on them, we must also try to make the sport more attractive to younger audiences.”

Otherwise, the young athletes at Dong Yang might as well hang up their sabbas.

by Brian Lee

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