Local sports clubs facing bleak futureIn the middle of the National Assembly’s inspection of the Korea Sports Council last month, a sports team manager showed up as a witness. Song No-il, 46, is the manager of the Korea Electric Power Corporation’s rugby team.
Mr. Song appealed to the assemblymen saying, “Less popular sports teams are all dying. Please help.” The rugby team did not participate in any of the five amateur competitions held this year as it is short of players and the company is not hiring any new ones.
Korea Railroad’s soccer players are also on edge as the sponsoring company is reviewing whether to disband the team to cut costs.
The economic slump has seen a number of sports teams being disbanded. Starting with the dissolution of Gwangju City women’s handball team in May 2003, the Dongwon Dreams ice hockey team quickly followed in July that year. Then came Hyundai Department Store’s table tennis team (October) and the Seoul local government’s soccer and volleyball teams (November). This year, Posdata’s table tennis team was disbanded.
According to the sports council, 36 corporate and state sponsored teams were dissolved in 2003 alone. “Although there are no final statistics for the years 2004 and 2005, an estimated 70 teams broke up in that period,” an official said.
These are not just corporate teams. Government agencies and public organizations have allowed their teams in less popular sports to fall victim to downsizing. The breakup of these teams has directly affected sports at schools with students shunning minority sports. This phenomenon is creating the worry that “amateur” sports in Korea are on the verge of collapsing.
Sports such as baseball, soccer and basketball, which have professional leagues, are doing much better. However, Korea’s strengths in amateur sports featured at the Olympics are not in these fields.
Kepco is quiet about the rugby team’s demand for more players. Normally a team needs 30 players but the team has only 15, the bare minimum. In some cases, the 46-year-old coach has to take part in the game. The average age of the team’s players is over 30.
The company’s volleyball team is in a similar situation ― it needs 15 athletes but has only 11 and cannot even have regular practice games without mobilizing 36-year-old Cha Seung-hun and 37-year-old Kim Cheol-su, the team’s coaches.
Kepco’s track and field team used to be the strongest in Korea in the early 1990s, with coach Kim Jae-ryong and 5,000-meter record holder Baek Seung-do. The team’s size is down to seven from 15.
“We are recruiting athletes and have no intention to dissolve the team,” said Oh Seong-sik, a senior official at Kepco. He added that the rugby team’s failure to participate in competitions “was to protect the athletes in preparation for national games in October.”
The Korea Sports Council, however, believes that the corporation is in the process of disbanding the team.
The Korea Railroad soccer team is also in danger. Before it became a state-owned corporation, when it was an arm of the government, Korea Railroad was enthusiastic about sports teams. However, a management reshuffle has led to a radical change.
The corporation’s public relations chief said, “We are discussing the soccer team’s future at the request of management. If certain conditions are not met, the team could be disbanded.”
According to the Sports Promotion Law, government-invested organizations, regional governments and public organizations with 1,000 or more employees are required to set up and sponsor one or more sports teams and hire the necessary personnel.
Among 98 public corporations and regional governments, 76 of them sponsor sports teams, but most are small with few athletes. The Korea Minting and Security Printing Corp. has a track and field team comprised of just two athletes, and a weight lifting team of four. The Korea Railroad’s judo team has two athletes and the Korea Water Resources Corp.’s track and field team has three.
“Most government corporations do not sponsor teams or have incomplete ones just to save face,” said Baek Seong-il, a Korea Sports Council official.
Council seeks solution to dearth of amateurs
The disbanding of sports teams at government corporations and public organizations could lead to the demise of amateur sports. The JoongAng Ilbo interviewed Sports Council Chairman Kim Jung-ki recently about the cause and solution to the situation.
Q. What are the problems?
A. The Sports Promotion Law states that government corporations sponsor sports teams, but there is no mandatory provision in the law. The country is not in the mood to come up with such regulations. The heads of the companies and public organizations need to change their perception about sports. I hope that they understand how much sports can influence the quality of life. Government corporations should consider that.
Is there anything to be done?
The costs of running sports teams should be recognized as expenses and tax benefits should be given to organizations running teams. Public organizations are audited in a way that the costs are considered losses, making it difficult for them to manage sports teams.
Does the Korea Sports Council have solutions?
We intend to take responsibility for changing regulations so that government corporations running sports teams are not disadvantaged financially.
by Shin Dong-jae, E Choong-hyoung