Leagues apart

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 September, 2004, 12:00am

Local baseball has hit trouble. The 23-year-old South Korean professional league used to be very popular, and successful. But that was before players - and fans - began defecting to overseas leagues, among them the US Major Leagues. Now, to make matters worse, more than 50 players have been detained and questioned this month for allegedly dodging military service. Some were even taken away in the middle of a game.

Police claim that the players dodged the mandatory two years and three months' service by pretending to have medical problems. Most were exempted after allegedly being diagnosed with kidney problems. Some, it is claimed, gave doctors urine samples laced with drugs, which would help them fail the conscription tests.

Whether the allegations are true or not, there is a certain degree of public sympathy for the players. Under conscription, male athletes are forced to take a break at the height of their physical prowess. In most cases, it spells the end of their careers. This is particularly true for baseball players, whose career blossoms in their early 20s. Drafting begins from the age of 20, but can be delayed until 28, but only for students. Many star players have been unable to regain their magic touch after their military service.

But the problem is not limited to athletes. Many singers, movie stars and entertainers have the same dilemma. In today's fast-changing music and entertainment world, idols can easily be forgotten in two years. At least three entertainers have also been implicated in the draft-dodging scandal.

But there is one way for athletes to get out of military service legally - win medals at a global sports event. Such achievements are deemed to contribute to national pride.

The latest scandal could prove a fatal blow to the professional baseball league, whose popularity is already declining. During its peak in 1995, a total of more than 5 million spectators watched teams in the league. Today, that figure has fallen to less than 3 million a year.

The main reason is the exodus of top players to the US and Japan. Park Chan-ho, now at the Texas Rangers, began the trend when he became a star pitcher in the Major Leagues in the late 1990s. More than a dozen top-notch players have followed. Many have also joined the Japanese leagues. Lee Seung-yup flew to Japan after hitting 56 home runs last year to break the long-standing Asian record.

Today, sports are also subject to globalisation, often at the expense of local institutions. If this trend continues, it may soon be unnecessary for professionals to try to dodge military service; there may be no local leagues left.