Sangmu: Home to the nation’s soldier-athletes

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Sangmu: Home to the nation’s soldier-athletes

Sangmu is half sports camp and half military camp, where 400 athletes train in 23 sports under military supervision and discipline. For some Korean men, this is a privilege that enables them to fulfill their mandatory military duty while continuing the life of an athlete.
A number of great athletes spent time here, including female soldiers with sporting talent: the 2004 Modern Pentathlon World Championships silver medalist Lee Choon-huan (corporal); the 2004 Athens Olympic Games silver medalist in shooting, Lee Bo-na (sergeant); and national soccer team players Lee Dong-gook (corporal) and Chung Kyung-ho (private).
The name Sangmu means “to value militarism,” and the camp’s mascot is a phoenix. In the past, teams were divided into army, navy and air force groups, but in 1984 they were integrated into one.
Currently, the troops at the camp are mostly male, but there are also 19 female soldiers in Sangmu, who excel in the sports of shooting, cycling and taekwondo.
Reveille sounds at 6:30 a.m., and the soldiers wake up. They change into sports gear and run to a large field. It is still dark, but the athletes line up four deep and wait for roll call. They sing the national and Sangmu anthems and begin aerobics.
When the athletes are ordered to break formation and regroup based on their sports, they yell out and run to wherever the coaches are.
Forty-five soccer players, including Mr. Chung, gather in front of coach Lee Gang-jo. Under the coach's guidance, they run laps around the track for 30 minutes. Then, they return to their barracks and start cleaning up.
Breakfast starts at 7:50 a.m. White steamed rice comes with nine side dishes, including bean paste soup, boiled cod and ham. It is a feast compared to what regular soldiers eat: rice with four side dishes.
The menu is larger and more varied because the athlete-soldiers consume more calories (5,000 to 5,500) per day. After a rest, they begin practicing at 9:30 a.m. Mr. Chung is undergoing weight training, and a trainer checks his progress charts and the amount of exercise he needs to do.
After a short break following lunch, they start training again at 2:30 p.m. The soccer team holds a practice game on ground covered with artificial turf. Dinner starts at 6 p.m., and after a breather they exercise individually from 8 p.m. Evening roll call is at 9:30 p.m. and lights go out at 10 p.m.
It is Mr. Chung's turn to take the night watch. He gets up at 2 a.m., changes into his military uniform, and keeps vigil for one hour at the entrance gate to the barracks building. Mr. Chung does not have his gun with him as regular soldiers are responsible for security around the camp. The turn for night watch comes once or twice a month.
There is also military training. In winter, the athletes are trained at camps near the border between North and South Korea for two weeks. The training includes guerrilla warfare exercises and night maneuvers.
The atmosphere in Sangmu sports camp is very much like that of any military base. There is an absolute hierarchy in which orders given by a superior must be followed.
“There is a three-hour instruction every Wednesday morning on military spirit and behavior,” Mr. Chung said. “I joined Sangmu after the 2004 Athens Olympics and my mental strength greatly improved. I came to learn how to be resilient.”
The biggest advantage for men in joining Sangmu is that it allows them to continue sports training while fulfilling their military duty. One out of 10 Sangmu athletes is on national teams.
Corporal Jeong Jin-seon, a fencer, joined the national team in January. “My skills have improved since I joined the army,” Mr. Jeong said. “It is because of good facilities and well-organized training.”
However, it is not easy to enter Sangmu. Only those who have had at least a third-place finish in domestic or international sports competitions are qualified to join because the number of athletes it can accommodate is limited. According to Sangmu, three athletes compete for each position.

by Kang Hye-ran
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