Once-popular sport over Chuseok holiday sees its glory fadeDuring the Chuseok holidays, several generations used to sit in front of the TV and watch a round or two of ssireum ― a form of the Korean traditional wrestling that started more than 1,500 years ago.
In the early 1980s, when Lee Man-ki used brilliant technique to throw Lee Bong-geol, who weighed about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) more than him, whole families were elated, clapping their hands and shouting with joy.
Such scenes are rare now. Interest in the sport has dwindled greatly.
Many young Koreans don’t even know the rules of ssireum and can’t name one present-day wrestler ― although they have heard of some now-retired greats such as Lee Man-ki, a 10-time champion, and Kang Ho-dong, a five-time champion who became more famous after becoming a TV presenter.
For much of the younger generation, ssireum is just another “tradition” no longer relevant today.
But before the annual Chuseok ssireum competition that will start Wednesday, the sport is getting more attention than it has received in a decade.
The reason is that early last month, the Korea Ssireum Organization decided to permanently expel Lee Man-ki, Korea’s ssireum hero, from membership.
The expulsion was in response to Lee’s open criticism of the organization― saying it is doing nothing to develop ssireum. Lee Man-ki also has attempted to force the ssireum organization’s leader, Kim Jae-kee, out of the post. The organization said he was causing antagonism.
Lee’s leading role in founding a new ssireum body, even though he is only calling it a club, also angered the organization.
But although the organization is angry, it is true ssireum is dying.
Only one professional team (Hyundai Samho Heavy Industries) remains ― in the 1980s, at the sport’s height, there were eight teams. After Korea’s 1997-98 financial crisis, companies dropped their ssireum teams, as recently did LG in late 2004 and Shinchang Construction last year. Even the number of wrestlers on the remaining team has dropped to 12 from 20, according to Mun Ki-su, an official who is in charge of ssireum at Hyundai Samho Heavy Industries. “As we’re the only professional team, there are no more pro matches. We don’t need that many players,” he said. The company spends 1.5 billion won ($1.6 million) to 2 billion won on its ssireum team a year, and there is nearly no income earned by the team.
“Ssireum failed in catching up to the speed of social changes,” said Kim Sang-keun, a ssireum coach at Yeongnam University. Ssireum wrestlers focused on increasing their weight rather than developing creative techniques. The matches lost any excitement and became just two large men struggling to overpower each other, instead of having the potential for a David and Goliath upset.
Also, most ssireum matches are held on weekday afternoons, when most people don’t watch TV or go to a stadium. It could be a chicken-or-the-egg question, but many ssireum wrestlers complain that television and newspapers don’t cover the sport as actively as they used to, adding that, in the 1980s, ssireum games were screened on TV around 9 p.m., in prime time.
But according to Min Byung-kwon, spokesman for the Korea Ssireum Organization, there is no problem in the sport. “From 2001 to 2003, ssireum won an annual sponsorship of 700 million won to 900 million won, although we received none from 2004 because of the lack of professional matches,” he said. “But, we just signed with Kookmin Bank for sponsorship of the rest of this year’s matches. It is expected that next year’s sponsorship will amount to 2 billion won,” he added. “Sponsorship has increased a lot compared to previous amounts. That reflects that the ssireum industry is not that bad and proves its feasibility.”
Ssireum started in 1983, but until 2001, KBS, which broadcast the matches, and the Korea Ssireum Organization did not accept sponsorship in order to prevent the sport becoming commercialized, he added.
“It is true that younger people aren’t interested in ssireum much because the sport is not speedy, but I think ssireum is very attractive for middle-aged and older people to watch,” he said.
Mr. Min was not worried by the dearth of professional teams either. “Beginning last year, we started holding matches with professionals and amateurs from local government teams together,” he said. In total there are 23 teams with about 130 athletes. “Lee was also a college student when he first won the title in the 1980s,” he said, questioning the point of dividing pros and amateurs.
Hwang Kyung-soo, the former coach of Lee who has led his teams to win 109 titles, is furious about that stance. “That was a temporary policy in order to continue ssireum [after LG and Sinchang Construction discontinued their teams.] That isn’t a solution,” he said. “It seems that the organization is no longer trying to bring ideas to promote and develop the sport, or to form more pro teams by soliciting companies,” he added.
Current college players echoed the former coach’s dismay. “Joining a pro team is every athlete’s dream, but as there’s only one team now, I think I will go to a local government team,” said Kim Sou-ho, leader of the Yeungnam University team. “I don’t think my future is as dark as people think. Before, I was proud of being a ssireum wrestler but these days, people look at me with sympathy.”
Park Sung-han, a professor at the university, said university teams are also likely to disappear in a couple of years, unless something is done to retain them. At the moment, there are 20 college teams, but presidents of the schools may cut them, he said.
“Raising interest in the sport should come first, in order for ssireum to survive,” Mr. Park said. “Sumo [Japanese traditional wrestling] is prosperous thanks to people’s interest and the royal family’s strong support,” he said, suggesting that the government support one of few Korean traditional sports.
“How can I tell students that it will be fine, when there’re not many teams they can play for after graduation?” Mr. Park said. “We don’t have a stadium designed only for ssireum yet,” he said, adding that the Japanese emperor built a sumo-only stadium. The Japanese government and emperor are fervent sponsors of sumo. Even former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attended last year’s year-end competition to award the prizes. In addition, NHK annually gives 1 billion yen ($8.5 million) to the sumo association for broadcasting the matches. On the contrary, KBS stopped paying 1.2 billion won to the Korea Ssireum Organization for airing the matches in 2004, according to Mr. Min.
When Takanohana, one of Japan’s most respected yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo, retired in 2003, all the major papers covered the news as their top story and the Japan Sumo Association gave him a 130 million yen ($1.1 million) grant as a reward for helping the development of the sport.
As sumo’s popularity increased not only in Japan, but also in other nations, several foreigners have joined the sport, from Mongolia, Bulgaria, the United States and Korea.
During a recent talk with the JoongAng Daily, Lee Man-ki said that ssireum should be taken up as the national sport so that it can get support from the government. He also said that a ssireum-only stadium should be constructed in order to make the sport as popular as sumo. “With the stadium, we can make ssireum a cultural product so that it can attract tourists,” he said. “But most of all, earning the Korean people’s love should come first.”
A simple guide to ssireum rules
Before a ssireum match begins, the reigning champion reads an oath aloud, announcing the competition: “To God who is our soil, water, fire and wind. We have gathered here once again to honor you. Please let our minds and bodies be healthy. Let our fields and rice paddies be fruitful with our brooks flowing and our wells ever deep.”
All wrestlers in the competition stand outside the circle of sand wearing only short tight pants, and perform a ceremony that symbolizes the sky, the earth and the people. Female dancers dressed in white then appear and dance. The dance symbolizes yin and yang.
Finally the match starts. Two men wearing satbas or belts wrapped around the waist and thighs, begin by kneeling in the 8-meter diameter circle of sand. They face each other and each grabs his opponent’s satba with his right hand. The players then stand up on the judge’s signal and after another signal, start to wrestle.
Each round lasts for two minutes with a one- minute break immediately after. Up until the finals, matches are played out in single rounds, whereas the finals consist of three rounds.
The first wrestler to touch the ground with any body part other than his feet is the loser and if one of the pair is pushed out of the ring, the round restarts. If the match ends in a tie, a wrestler who received a warning or caution loses, and if none were given, the lighter person wins. If their weights are the same on record, they are weighed immediately after the match. If the result is also the same, one is drawn as the winner.
The weight classes are divided into taebaek (80 kilograms and below), geumgang (80.1 to 90 kilograms), halla (90.1 to 105 kilograms) and baekdu (105.1 kilograms and above).
Source: Korea Ssireum Organization
by Park Sung-ha