When the sordid saga is finally over, curling fans should remember how the Korean women’s curling team managed to win Olympic silver on home ice, despite the oppressive hand of authoritarian abuse.

On Monday, the Korean Curling Federation (KCF) sanctioned former vice-president Kim Kyung-doo, his daughter Kim Min-jung and her husband Jang Ban-seok following an investigation into abuse allegations conducted by the National Sports Ministry.

This punishment seems an afterthought, considering the government’s five-week investigation actually concluded back in February of 2019. At the time, the ministry determined that PyeongChang 2018 Olympic silver medallists Team Kim, consisting of skip Kim Eun-jung and teammates Kim Yeong-mi, Kim Seon-yeong, Kim Kyeong-ae and Kim Cho-hee, were subjected to unfair treatment and verbal and emotional abuse by their coaches and some officials. In addition, some U.S. $112,000 in prize and sponsorship earnings were kept from them.

Kim Min-jung was the head coach of the women’s team at PyeongChang 2018, while Jang coached the mixed doubles team at the Games.

Kim Kyung-doo was a longtime leader in Korean curling, and in addition to participating in the abuse, was found to have pocketed huge amounts of money while in charge of the Euiseong Curling Center. The ministry learned that for five years starting in 2014, Kim misappropriated over U.S. $530,000, and there was circumstantial evidence of tax evasion.

The Olympic accomplishments of the “Garlic Girls” – nicknamed after their hometown, which is known for garlic production – were even more amazing given the collapse of the Korean Curling Federation prior to the Games, a full six months before the first Olympic stones were thrown in Gangneung, near PyeongChang.

The Curling News was first to notice the team’s complete disappearing act in the fall of 2018, following a spring of public celebrations and corporate endorsements plus a tiebreaker finish at the world women’s championship. There was zero presence on the World Curling Tour, and then Korea was represented by the youthful Min-ji Kim team at both Curling World Cup legs in Suzhou, China and Omaha, Nebraska, as well as the 2018 Pacific-Asia Championships in Gangneung, where the new Korean squad won gold.

In November 2018, the athletes had sent a letter to the president of KSOC and held a news conference, requesting that their coaches be replaced, saying they had been abused and exploited for their coaches’ personal gains.

The 2018 news conference-AP

The 2018 news conference-AP

“We would like to continue our training (for Beijing 2022) without our current coaches and their influence,” the players wrote in their letter, according to the Korea Times.

“Our coach Kim was hardly present while we were training for the Olympics. Whenever we made complaints about Kim to Kyung-doo Kim, who is her father and the vice president of Korea Curling Federation, he verbally abused us.”

In the news conference, which aired to millions of Koreans, the players made various claims including that the coaches had taken all the prize money they won in international competitions since 2015.

“We believe we made at least 60 million won (U.S. $54,000) in 2015 alone, but we never received any of it,” the team said.

“We’ve also been made to attend a number of public events, and later learned that the events’ organizers paid us (through our coaches), but we never received such funds, either.”

The players also said they were banned from using social media after the PyeongChang Games. They also said that skip Kim Eun-jung was forced to train by herself after the Olympics, without clear reasons.

Ban-seok and the other coaches initially denied all of the allegations. When asked if it is true whether or not he and his wife deliberately excluded the team’s skip from the group training, Ban-seok said it was because Kim was married in July and “plans for pregnancy sometime in the near future.”

The curlers also claimed that the coaches tried to block Kim Eun-jung from taking part in the opening ceremony of PyeongChang’s Paralympic Winter Games, just a couple of weeks after the Olympic Games had finished. Kim Eun-jung eventually served as a cauldron lighter with wheelchair curler Soon-seok Seo at the ceremony.

The curlers added that the coaches tried to alienate the athletes from the KCF and Uiseong County because Kyung-doo Kim is in dispute with those groups. 

“The human rights of the athletes are being violated,” the curlers wrote in the letter. “We’ve reached a point where it has become unbearable” citing “countless cases of verbal abuse” and that their coaches were imposing excessive control over their private lives.

In December 2018, word came that Kim Kyung-doo had agreed to step away from the sport of curling forever, along with his family. He offered a “sincere apology” to the athletes and also for causing “great disappointment” to the public. But while admitting to verbal abuse, Kim continued to deny other accusations such as holding back prize money from the team.

Unfortunately, South Korea has a history of disputes between curling athletes and coaches. 

One month after the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, the five members of the Korean women’s team threatened to quit in protest over alleged sexual abuse by assistant coach Min-suk Choi. Choi offered to resign, and a subsequent investigation resulted in his lifetime ban from the sport in Korea.

Head coach Young-sup Chung, who also resigned when the issue surfaced, received a five-year suspension for failing to return the balance of unused training grants to the team members. He was not involved in the alleged sexual abuse.

News of the formal ban of the former coaches comes just days after Team Kim won the 2021 Korean women’s championship, held at the site of their Olympic glory almost three years ago. The “Garlic Girls“ are back.