Star athletes don’t belong in foxholesBy the time you are reading this I will be far from the office defending God, country and whoever reads this. I have been called up to hone my battle cry ― not my skills ― to deter the evil Kim Jong-il of North Korea through my annual army training. I will be running around gasping for air and eating food that may be appropriate for new recruits but not civilians-turned-soldiers like myself.
Nevertheless, I am obliged to pen a column even when I am not at work, so bear with me if you have read this far. If you were yelled at by your boss just now for having your nose in the newspaper, tell her I am defending both of you from the risk of attack from North Koreans. You do not have to thank me.
The ties between Korean males and the army are tight. For Korean athletes, they are even stronger.
Recently a hot debate emerged over whom to put on the baseball roster for the 2004 Athens Olympics, as qualifying rounds start in November. The focus was whether to include Korean players from the American major leagues with mediocre records. One argument was to provide more slots on the Olympic roster for players from domestic leagues with better numbers.
For a young baseball player, landing on the Olympic roster and earning a chance to win a medal goes beyond anything else he might accomplish. There is also the prize of exemption from the 26-month army service, which is mandatory for Korean males. The law dictates that males eligible for service who win a silver or gold medal at the Olympics or a gold medal at the Asian Games are exempted from service; all they have to do is put in a couple of weeks of basic training (Park Chan-ho of the Texas Rangers cried after finishing his training. Along with his teammates, he got an exemption by winning the gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games. At the time, the whole team consisted of players who were eligible for service).
So where do all the poor athletes who have failed to clinch a medal go? If they are lucky, they will enlist in Sangmu, a special military unit composed of athletes who played in a pro league or were top-seeded amateurs before being inducted. Whether Ping-Pong or soccer, around 30 sports are played among Sangmu members. But if you happen to be in curling, chances are good that you will be kept busy digging trenches.
The very survival of this special unit is shaky. In recent years, including this year, the army hinted that it might dissolve it.
Just thinking back on those days when I had to sleep cheek-to-cheek with my comrades, close as canned sardines, I do not usually have much love for draft dodgers. I do not believe in the crap of becoming a man through military service, but I do believe in duty. Nothing less, nothing more.
Nevertheless, in the case of athletes I am willing to cut them some slack. The dilemma for athletes is that their earning potential tends to drop a great deal as they age. For a sportsman to take a hiatus from his game for two years ― often at the peak of his career ― is a death sentence. Athletes build up their muscle memory through training; even a week of rest changes that condition. and just like our brains, our muscles tend to retain fewer memories as we grow older.
The tradition of Sangmu should continue. Perhaps the Korean Army should add more sports to the list so that more athletes can succeed.
by Brian Lee
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