Soccer dorm deaths reflect a dilemma

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Soccer dorm deaths reflect a dilemma

When the Korean national soccer team team played a match against Colombia last weekend, every Korean on the field wore a black armband. This wasn’t a political gesture against the war in Iraq; it was a sign of deep remorse.
The tribute was for the eight boys who died after a freak fire ravaged their soccer dormitory a few days before. The boys were: Lee Geon-woo, 12, Lee Jang-won, 12, Kim Min-seok, 12, Ju Sang-hyeok, 12, Kim Ba-wool, 12, Koh Won-ju, 11, Kang Min-su, 10, and Lim Tae-gyun, 8.
No longer will any of these eight boys dream of becoming the next Hong Myung-bo or Ahn Jung-hwan. No longer will any of them chant “Daehanminguk” and clap in rhythm with the Red Devils when the Korean national team competes. No longer will any of the boys practice corner kicks for hours.
The tragic fire Friday that took the lives of the boys on Cheonan Elementary School’s soccer team in South Chungcheong province must be a catalyst for changing ― once and for all ― the way athletes are trained on the peninsula. Long after the Soviet Union faded, the old system of producing elite athletes remains. Under the name habsuk, which means “eating and sleeping together,” young Korean athletes are put together from a very young age under the premise of improved teamwork.
This practice is especially common before tournaments, when teams often prepare together for a month, and are exempted from classes. At the core of this setup lies the performance-oriented athletic system now in place: To be accepted to a middle school with a serious soccer program, an athlete must compete for a team that places in the top four at a national championship.
Right now about 7,500 kids in 279 elementary schools nationwide fall into this category.
In these modern times, kids are crammed into dorms that often resemble shipping containers, and are neither comfortable nor safe. Most Korean schools ― and that includes most high schools ― lack the money to build proper sports/living facilities.
But it’s not only soccer. As I said, this do-or-die attitude is embedded into every sport in Korean schools.
Choi Il-wook, director of the Korea Swimming Federation as well as a coach, says that pressure for coaches to perform makes them push the youngsters hard, often with a negative result. “Kids this young should have fun,” says Mr. Choi. “If you keep training them hard they will miss one of the most important aspects of doing a sport. Besides, they are still growing; if you overwork their bodies, they will break down.”
The kids of Cheonan awoke at 6:30 a.m. and practiced for two hours. Then they studied until 3 p.m. and endured more training after classes until 8 or 9 p.m. That’s a schedule for professional soccer players, not kids who enjoy Spiderman.
After the fire, the Korea Football Association advised the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development to close all soccer dormitories in elementary schools.
Good idea, but not the right idea. It’s not the facilities that are at fault; it’s the whole system that must be rebuilt.


by Brian Lee
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