A ssireum hero gets taken downLee Man-ki is everyone’s hero. The traditional Korean wrestling sport of ssireum, which made Lee famous, is just the opposite. Almost nobody is saying it publicly, but ssireum is on life support. The only time it gets any TV coverage is when Lee and the Korea Ssireum Organization are at each other’s throats, as they have been recently. The 10-time champion, who showed us that a big heart and skills can overcome size, was ejected permanently as a member of the organization earlier this month. The reason: His constant criticism of the organization and open rants to the press about how he would reform a dying sport spilled the beans about the sport’s troubles. Right. As if anybody didn’t know.
For sure, there are politics at play. Lee started his own quasi-ssireum organization in 1999, which could be seen as a move to grab all the power in the ssireum world. Since then, his camp has repeatedly criticized the other organization as being inefficient in reviving the fortunes of ssireum, which at its height in the 1980s saw some eight professional teams. Only one remains today. Operated by Hyundai Heavy Industries, it has less than a dozen players. The most recent defection came when Lee Tae-hyun went to the Japanese Pride Fighting Championships, a no-holds barred tournament. Lee Man-ki’s main argument has been that the organization rested on its laurels and failed to create more professional teams. He also pointed to incidents last year in which the sport failed to get a deal for any TV networks to show the few games played, usually exhibitions between professionals and amateurs.
Many times, he called for the heads of the former presidents of the organization. The old brass probably hated him for his guts. However, the argument against Lee that he was being critical without giving any alternatives may also be true.
His stints at trying to enter the world of politics are also known, but I am looking beyond all that.
Lee has requested a re-examination of his ejection from the organization, which has demanded that he forfeit all of his titles. The organization’s chairman, Kim Jae-ki, has countered that Lee should return all the prize money he won as well. I don’t know what will happen, but the symbolic meaning that Lee carries cannot be overlooked. Now that ssireum is close to extinction, his record of clinching 10 championships will probably never be broken. The next-closest was Kang Ho-dong, who retired with five championships. The ssireum world is in a fight where the last man standing will be a loser.
The government endorsed professional ssireum when it was initiated in the early 80s. Conglomerates weren’t shy to create teams. It may have been part of a grand scheme to keep the people happy under a military regime, but even so, the games were exciting to watch. Now, until there is a greater following, companies will hesitate to create professional teams. If anyone cares to bring ssireum back, government help is needed. Each provincial government could operate teams.
For now, professional and amateur teams should play in one league until the sport regains its popularity. It is crucial to maintain interest at the grassroots level, otherwise the number of young ssireum athletes will keep declining until there is no one left.
If the government doesn’t make help available, it will be a slow but sure death for a traditional sport, which once had the potential to rise to the same status as Japanese sumo wrestling.
by Brian Lee