SEOUL, South Korea — When the #MeToo movement started gaining traction in South Korea last year, many people here looked to the country’s sports communities, which have long been dogged by allegations of corruption and physical abuse. But few victims spoke out.
That changed this month, when Shim Suk-hee, 21, a member of South Korea’s national short-track speedskating team and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, said she had been repeatedly raped by her former coach, Cho Jae-beom, since she was 17.
Mr. Cho, 38, was fired as national team coach shortly before the start of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, last year on allegations of violent abuse against athletes. In September, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison for physically assaulting four athletes, including Ms. Shim, between 2011 and the run-up to the Pyeongchang Games.
If Ms. Shim’s accusation of sexual assault is corroborated, it would add more weight to the long-held allegation among sports analysts that South Korea’s glory in short-track speedskating has been built on a brutal training regimen that included beatings and other forms of violence.
Other countries have also been addressing allegations of abuse against elite athletes, including the United States, where Lawrence G. Nassar, a former doctor for the American women’s gymnastics team, was sentenced last year to decades in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting numerous young women.
Mr. Cho, speaking through his lawyers, denied raping Ms. Shim. The police said that they had confiscated his cellphone and computers to look for criminal evidence.
Ms. Shim’s accusations against her former coach have sent shock waves through the country’s sports community.
South Korea is particularly proud of its short-track speedskating. The country has won 24 Olympic gold medals, more than any other country, since the sport became part of the Games in 1992. Ms. Shim herself has won more than 20 gold medals in international competitions since 2012, including a gold in the 3,000-meter team relay at the 2014 Winter Olympics. She won the same medal in Pyeongchang.
“This unveils the humiliating underside of our country’s glorious facade as a sports powerhouse,” President Moon Jae-in said on Monday.
Mr. Moon called for a thorough investigation, urging his government to help other victims feel safe enough to speak out.
His remarks came as more than 260,000 people signed a petition to his office demanding a longer prison term for Mr. Cho.
Mr. Moon’s government was caught off guard by Ms. Shim’s allegations.
Only hours before Ms. Shim’s accusations were first reported in the local news media last Tuesday, the country’s Korean Sport and Olympic Committee reported making strong progress in its campaign to protect athletes against sexual and other types of abuse. In a survey of 1,201 athletes, including all 791 national team members, the committee said it had found only four cases of sexual violence. In a similar survey in 2010, almost 27 percent of respondents reported sexual abuse.
Ms. Shim outside the Suwon District Court, south of Seoul, the capital, in December.CreditYonhap/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The government said it would open a more comprehensive investigation of sexual crimes in the sports community, vowing to expel perpetrators from the profession permanently and take steps to prevent schools and other teams from hiring them.
“One of the problems has been that the perpetrators were not properly punished and they often returned to their old jobs,” Vice Sport Minister Roh Tae-kang said last week.
Encouraged by Ms. Shim’s accusations, a former judo player named Shin Yoo-yong, 24, publicly accused her former coach of repeatedly raping her since she was a high school student. Her coach had once tried to silence her with a $445 payoff after his wife began suspecting him of having a sexual relationship with her, Ms. Shin said in a Facebook post and in an interview with the Hankyoreh newspaper published on Monday.
The police said they were investigating the case.
Solidarity for Young Skaters, a group of current and former ice skaters and coaches, said at least two other victims planned to speak in public. Other victims of sexual violence were afraid to speak out because whistle-blowers in the past had been vilified and ostracized in their profession, which is ruled by a rigid, hierarchical relationship between coaches and athletes, said the group’s leader, Yeo Jun-hyung, a former national team coach.
The government’s efforts to encourage whistle-blowers by opening hotlines for victims have not worked, critics said.
“If Shim Suk-hee were not an Olympic gold medalist, her case too could have been buried,” Chung Yong-chul, a professor of sports psychology at Sogang University in Seoul, the South Korean capital, said at a news conference last week.
Sports experts had long said that abuse was widespread in South Korea, where winning Olympic golds justified physical assaults. In South Korea, athletes often live together in dormitories and routinely skip other classes, leaving them with few other career choices. Such a system gives coaches exceptional power over athletes, sports commentators say.
Mr. Cho, who had coached Ms. Shim since she was in primary school, regularly inspected her cellphone to see who she was talking to, her lawyer, Lim Sang-hyuk, told reporters. When she was in the fourth grade, Mr. Cho broke her finger bone with a hockey stick, Mr. Lim said.
Ms. Shim could not protest this behavior because of fears that Mr. Cho would end her career, Mr. Lim said. The coach once tinkered with Ms. Shim’s skate blades in a competition to favor other athletes, Mr. Lim added.
Ms. Shim’s troubles first came to public attention last January, when she left the national team training facility in the run-up to the Pyeongchang Games because of physical abuse.
Mr. Cho was quickly removed as coach after an investigation. He was briefly hired to coach the Chinese national team after he was banned from working in South Korea, but he later returned home to face trial.
Testifying at Mr. Cho’s appeals trial last month, Ms. Shim said Mr. Cho used to punch and kick her until “she felt she might die” during training for the Pyeongchang Games. Ms. Shim claimed that a fall she had during a Pyeongchang competition was because of a concussion she suffered at Mr. Cho’s hands.
“I came here so that there will be no more victims like me,” Ms. Shim said.