Slave to winning keeps them in chainsEvery once in a while I would bump into this kid from my apartment block in the elevator. He’s so polite and all, bowing his head whenever we cross paths. Sometimes I try to start a conversation, but it doesn’t go too far. Must be the age gap. Anyway, Choi Seung-deok (the name on his name tag) always has short hair. That puzzles me; to my knowledge crew cuts are a thing of the past. The other day, I finally asked him about it.
Me: Yo (with a rapper-like hand gesture, trying to bridge the age gap) wassup with that hair, man?
Choi: I play sports.
Me: Gotcha man (still trying to be in sync with a teen). Whaddabout da school?
Choi: I don’t need to go to class. My attendance is already checked.
A decade plus a couple of good years have elapsed since my middle school days but a few things, it seems, have not changed. Relative to its size, this country has done well at international sports events such as the Olympics. Back in the 80s when Korea was emerging as one of East Asia’s tigers, government sponsorship of athletes reached a pinnacle. Success at major sport events was a matter of national pride. Athletes continued to be groomed in much the same way as under the old Soviet-style system: Round-the-clock training ― and more training. This culture, where performance was the only measure of achievement, was embedded in youngsters from middle school on through college. Such athletes rarely attended classes during the season, or off-season for that matter.
Believe it or not, this system remains pretty much intact to this day.
I once chatted with Heo Sea-hwan, the coach at Kwangju Jeil High School baseball team, about this practice. Jeil has produced three major league players, including the Boston Red Sox closer Kim Byung-hyun.
He only sighed and said, “It’s the system. I wish they could study more. After all, there is life after baseball. Everyone is one injury away from doing something other than playing ball.”
Ask Kim Geon-duk what he thinks. Kim won a gold medal at the 1994 World Juniors as a pitcher but after he injured his throwing arm it was lights out. Being unprepared for a life outside the ball park, he wished he had spent more time studying. “It is very hard to get yourself to do other things and do them well,” says the 27-year old, who is now a civil servant as part of his military duty.
In the States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association goes through a lot to keep college athletes from becoming too “dumb.” Weeding out test-takers who fill in for athletes and keeping an eye on the allowable practice hours per day are two of the things the NCAA does. But at least there’s a system to ensure that athletes have academic abilities. Look to the National Football League. You have players like Jay Fiedler, the Miami Dolphins quarterback, who also happens to be a Dartmouth grad. I don’t know Fiedler’s grade point average but I know that Ivy League schools won’t take anybody off the street.
Here, by contrast, a middle or high school athlete only needs to play on a team in his senior year that places at least third place in that sport’s championships and it’s open sesame to the next level. The old boys’ network determines which school the athlete attends, not his grades. Academic barriers are so low a grasshopper can jump over them. It’s a joke, and it’s a bad one.
by Brian Lee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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