Ssireum feels the financial pinchAthletes from the LG Securities and Hyundai Heavy Industries ssireum teams started a sit-in protest yesterday at the Korea Ssireum Association’s headquarters in Jangchung-dong, Seoul, in an effort to save the sport.
Ssireum, or Korean traditional wrestling, has been hit by financial woes at the professional level. The strike was prompted by an announcement that the LG ssireum team would be dissolved on Dec. 6 because of a lack of money. The LG team also said it would begin a hunger strike today.
If the LG ssireum team is disbanded, only two teams would be left in the professional league, one run by Hyundai Heavy Industries and the other by Shinchang Construction.
“We have been told that our team will cease to exist after the Cheonhajangsa Ssireum Championship, but to prepare for a championship under such circumstances is disheartening, and we decided to ask the Korea Ssireum Association to come up with a solution,” said Lee Ki-su, coach of the LG ssireum team.
Mr. Lee, along with LG and Hyundai ssireum athletes and coaches, is demanding Korea Ssireum Association head Kim Jae-ki’s resignation, citing his inability to revive the sport’s sagging fortunes in the country of its birth.
The athletes and coaches from Hyundai’s ssireum team have joined their counterparts from LG in a show of solidarity.
“This is not only a problem for the LG team but a problem for ssireum itself. That is why we are here,” said a Hyundai ssireum coach.
Ssireum officials have responded, saying they are pursuing every possibility to save the LG team. “We have been trying to arrange the sale of the LG team. To start a collective action right before the sport’s biggest event is not going to help anyone,” a ssireum official said.
The professional ssireum league was founded in 1983, and at its peak in 1996 had eight professional teams.
Since the Asian economic crisis, however, companies sponsoring ssireum teams have found profitability an elusive proposition. At the moment, about 50 ssireum athletes are registered with the Korea Ssireum Association.
This contrasts with the situation in Japan, where sumo boasts 800 registered athletes and four exclusive stadiums in such cities as Tokyo and Osaka.
Ssireum officials argue the sport needs systematic government support such as tax breaks to survive. “Taekwondo was groomed by the government. If ssireum had received only half of that support, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” said senior official Min Byeong-kwan.
by Brian Lee