[Viewpoint] Don’t crush young athletes’ dreams

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[Viewpoint] Don’t crush young athletes’ dreams

Park Tae-hwan was the first Korean to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. Kim Yu-na has become a skating queen even though before her Koreans were not regarded as very skilled in that field. Park Ji-sung is doing well as a player on Manchester United, one of the best football clubs in the world.

Words cannot say how happy and moved it makes Koreans feel to see these athletes perform well on the global stage. Watching these star players, the people feel proud of our country.

But star players are not made overnight. They become stars because of the tears and sweat they have to shed over a long period.

Some lawmakers recently proposed a bill for a law regulating physical education in schools. The outline calls for a ban on training camps in order to guarantee student-athletes’ right to an ordinary school education, allowing training only after class and on weekends, and for athletes who do not meet minimum requirements for school performance to be kept from attending sports competitions.

The representatives say elite sports in schools create an atmosphere in which earning a gold medal is the ultimate goal, while a harsh training culture interferes with student-athletes’ right to an education and hence violates their human rights. Meanwhile, they maintain that physical education classes for ordinary students must be increased to make them stronger.

It is a good idea to increase hours of physical education for ordinary people to make them healthier and stronger. However, their lack of appreciation for elite sports is wrong. Look at China. Although more than 250 million people ride bicycles for transportation purposes, the country does not do well in international cycling events.

On the other hand, for table tennis and gymnastics, the fields in which China is world-class, athletes start to train intensively at special schools from when they are very young. A wide range of people playing sports does not help the country do well in international sports competition. There is a distinct difference in competence between professional athletes, amateurs who have passion for a certain sport and ordinary people.

Advanced countries such as the United States and France have built training centers for athletes on their national teams and offer them sufficient support and training programs. Japan also established the Japan Institute of Sports Science in 2001 to train national team athletes. These countries discover talented athletes at an early stage and train them in intensive and special programs.

The National Assembly bill goes against the global trend when other countries are doing their best to nurture elite sports. If the bill passes, it will be difficult to expect more of our athletes to bring glory to our country and move our people.

Of course, student-athletes must get an ordinary school education as well as sports training. As elementary school and middle school courses are mandatory, young athletes must get at least that amount of education. Students learn basic values and develop character through mandatory education. From high school, students must get specialized education that suits their unique future.

As of 2008, the total number of high school students in our country is 1.9 million. Of these, 1.4 million study in ordinary high schools, and 500,000 go to vocational high schools. Seniors at vocational schools take 26 hours of vocational classes out of a 35-hour week. In vocational classes, they learn specific skills such as hairstyling, photography and cooking. Vocational classes in ordinary schools are similar. So what is the difference between students who learn special skills for employment after graduation and student-athletes who train to enter the world of professional sports? Just as students at vocational schools learn how to cook to become cooks, student-athletes train hard to become professional athletes.

It is up to individual students to decide whether they will study or become athletes. If it violates human rights to prohibit students from studying, is it right to prohibit them from training? Is it truly good for young athletes to take them away from training when they are working hard in order to become the best in the world? For an athlete, training will determine their future. Helping young students do their best in the fields of their choice and become competitive on the global stage is our responsibility as adults. While this controversy rages, world sports are moving ahead of us and our young sportsmen who have focused on training since they were very young become confused about their identity and lose competitiveness.

Among high school students in our country, registered athletes number around 26,000, merely 1.4 percent of the total. These athletes must be trained to become international sports players or great coaches. They chose sports to realize their dreams, and they have potential.

Of course, there is the possibility that they will not make their dreams come true. However, it feels like a waste of time to discuss which is better: to force student-athletes into classrooms where the purpose of the lectures is to help students get in universities, fearing that they might fail to become sports stars, or to help them focus on training to turn their dreams into reality.

*The writer is the president of the Korea Sports Council. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Yong-sung
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