South Korea’s biggest sports star Kim Yu-na and Olympic swimmer dragged into scandal surrounding president Park Geun-hye
The figure-skating icon was supposedly blacklisted for not taking part in a bizarre calisthenics event, while swimmer Park Tae-hwan says he was blackmailed ahead of Rio Olympics
The scandal threatening to bring down South Korea’s president has reached the world of sport, with the country’s figure-skating icon Kim Yu-na and Olympic gold medallist swimmer Park Tae-hwan reportedly victims of Park Geun-hye’s army of hangers-on.
On Wednesday Kim was inducted into South Korea’s Sports Hall of Fame.
But instead of reflecting on a career that saw her win gold and silver medals at the 2010 and ’14 Olympics, she found herself trying to bat off several rumours about how she may have been affected by Choi Soon-sil, the cult leader’s daughter who is accused of being the president’s puppetmaster, and her sidekicks.
And swimmer Park claims he was blackmailed by a senior figure in the sports ministry who has since been arrested for his alleged links to Choi.
Reports in South Korea this week claimed that Kim was put on a government blacklist for not dancing to Choi’s tune – quite literally.
Kim supposedly refused to participate in a bizarre calisthenics workout invented by Choi’s protege Cha Eun-taek, a K-Pop video director who gained huge influence in the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism because of his links to Choi, the Korea Times and Chosun Ilbo reported.
President Park, sporting a tracksuit designed by Choi, took part in a demonstration of the new ‘sport’, for which Cha reportedly received 350 million won (HK$2.29 million) to promote, in November 2014.
The ‘sport’ was quietly shelved after receiving much mockery and Cha was arrested earlier this month.
KBS TV reported that Kim refused to take part in the demonstration and was blackballed by government officials.
As evidence they pointed to her failure to win a top national sports award in 2015 despite winning 82 per cent of the vote; government officials raised the age limit at the last minute so she was ineligible, according to KBS.
WATCH: President Park demonstrates Cha’s new ‘sport’ in 2014
“I didn’t even know such an event [the calisthenics] existed,” Kim, 26, insisted at the Hall of Fame presentation, Yonhap reported. “Since my agency controlled my schedule, I wasn’t aware of it.”
Such is the bizarre nature of the presidential scandal that almost any rumour involving Park and her cronies cannot be discounted as too absurd.
Kim was also forced to respond to claims that she had been persona non grata after appearing to brush off Park’s hand at a Liberation Day event three months ago.
“Even if I was impolite, I would not have brushed off her hand,” Kim said. “I remember everyone was moving to and fro a lot before standing in their positions on the stage. I was also not aware of the situation.”
Though keen to distance herself from the wild claims, Kim admitted the snowballing rumours were a worry.
“Many stories are coming out right now, but I really didn’t think about [them] until the media reported,” she said. “I’m just worried that things are getting bigger.”
Earlier this week Park Tae-hwan, gold medallist swimmer at the Beijing Olympics, claimed blackmail from a senior official in the sports ministry was to blame for his lacklustre performance at the Rio Games this summer.
The 27-year-old took the nation’s Olympic Committee (KOC) to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in order to compete in Brazil after he had served an 18-month doping ban.
The KOC has a rule that prevents athletes from representing the nation for three years after completing doping suspensions.
After CAS ruled in Park’s favour, he failed to make the finals in any of his events – and blamed former vice sports minister Kim Chong, another who has been arrested in the presidential scandal.
Park says Kim told him he could secure sponsorships and a coaching position for Park if he abandoned his bid to compete in Rio, but would use his influence to deny him sponsorships if he insisted on battling the KOC. Park had to pay his own way to Rio.
“Back then, I was scared because he was in a high-ranking position,” Park said in Tokyo at the Asian Swimming Championships. “But I just wanted to go to the Olympics.
“There were talks about corporate sponsorships and college professorship, but it didn’t really get through to me,” he said. “Many thoughts went through my head and I felt the weight and responsibility. But what was important for me was to compete at the Olympics.”
Kim Chong is accused of giving business favours to Choi in return for her influencing the appointment of officials and funding for sports projects, according to Yonhap.
“I had to be in best form, but I had lots of things to think about other than swimming,” added Park. “I now regret that I wasn’t mentally strong at the moment.”