Sports stars can still be soldiers, and should be

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Sports stars can still be soldiers, and should be

It’s ironic that sports athletes who are probably in the best condition for the country’s mandatory military service all try very hard to get an exemption from service by performing well on the international stage. It’s safe to say that if they were given a choice between millions of won and an exemption they would still opt for the pass out of the service.
The current ground rule is that medal-winners in the Olympic games, gold medalists at the Asian Games and team members of the national soccer team that make it to the round of 16 get this much-desired ticket. Lately, players making it to the final four of the World Baseball Classic have been added to this list.
I don’t object to an award, but I do think that offering an exemption from military service sends the wrong message. Is the service so dreaded that the whole country thinks that giving an exemption is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon athletes?
I admit there is the rationale to do so. Athletes do need to get the most out of their bodies at the time when they’re likely to be drafted, but by handing out these freebees we are only shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s a bad example. As in Israel or Singapore, everyone should fulfill their national service.
But what about the players’ right to make money and seek happiness? There are special units in the military which are for athletes or people in the entertainment industry. But there are limited spots in these units, not everyone is lucky enough to get in, and even if an athlete were in the unit, he would still not be able to compete abroad. In the past, some officers were given military terms as short as six months. Shortening military terms for athletes could be one way to address the issue. Expanding the size of the special “entertainment” units is another way. Athletes who have been successful abroad could be drafted to coach national teams for a specific period after their active days as players are over.
What is certain is that the current rules on exemption from the military service are outdated and need overhauling ― something the Defense Ministry is in the process of doing. First it must be shown that an exemption from military service is not the only way of honoring athletes. Personally, I do think that athletes need to be given a break, but the break could occur in some alternative form of service and not necessarily an exemption.
If there is a consensus that exemption is the best way to reward athletes, my advice would be to include sports experts so that when new guidelines for exemptions are devised the issue is considered from every angle. There are other great international sports tournaments that are currently not being recognized here for draft exemption. What about someone winning the British Open or the Boston Marathon? There needs to be an answer to that, while there is also certainly a need to examine the quality of the tournament.
Until now, draft exemptions were awarded depending on the overall mood of the public. I don’t think it would have been that easy to give exemptions to all the baseball players participating in the Classic had the government waited until it was over. What’s important is if athletes are to benefit from an exemption, everyone needs to be included, not just athletes that play a popular sports.

by Brian Lee
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