Military service hampers success of nation’s athletesSouth Korean athletes have to win games like any other team to please ever-hungry fans. They also have to go through boot camp and eat excrement like everyone else. Just kidding.
The recent case in which recruits were forced by an officer to eat excrement was a rather extreme example of hazing that still goes on in the military. But South Korean male athletes do have to serve 24 months in the military like their “regular” brethren and that is not fair.
True, the South Korean Armed Forces Athletics Corps (Sangmu), exists for the country’s young athletes but only 400 spots are available. Athletes rotate in and out of the unit according to when their tours are up. Not every aspiring athlete gets a chance to continue to practice his sport.
Also, only 23 sports are available for qualification. Curling athletes, for example, are not exactly high on Sangmu’s list.
Only truly gifted and exceptional athletes can earn their ticket out of the military service. Any Olympic medal or gold medal at the Asian Games is the prize asked of athletes. But that achievement is asked of many athletes, and even good ones often fail to achieve one during their entire career.
Other exemptions have included the fourth place finish by South Korea at the 2002 World Cup. All the South Korean soccer players who took part received a special exemption from military service, but we all know that was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
The pressure on athletes facing military service is tremendous.
While people like you and I only have to endure a Spartan lifestyle for two years and are off the hook, these athletes are wasting more than just those years in the military.
After he finished four week of military service, Texas Ranger pitcher Park Chan-ho said that it would probably take the same amount of time he served to get back in the swing again if he was lucky. Park only did four weeks thanks to winning a gold medal at the Asian Games. I still remember how he was crying on the day of his discharge. Imagine what two years of duty could do to the muscle memory of an athlete.
For athletes, military service is almost like a death sentence. With a short life span, two years and who knows how many years to get back into shape is a significant portion of their sporting career.
The potential amount of money that could have been made in those years is anybody’s guess but nobody is compensating the athletes for their loss.
That is also why we have recently witnessed one of the country’s biggest draft dodging scandals involving baseball players. I harbor no love for draft dodgers. The service is not easy but it is what it is: a duty to perform.
Having said that, it’s only fair that a solution to this problem should be found. Unlike draft dodgers who drop their South Korean citizenship or buy their way out of military service, these athletes have a legitimate reason to be treated in a different way.
Increasing the quota at Sangmu, shortening the service term for athletes or making athletes eligible for other alternative services that allows them to continue to practice their sport could be one way to do it. Athletes deserve better.
by Brian Lee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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