South Korean volleyball team’s star twins dropped after bullying pasts emerge
- Lee Jae-yeong and Lee Da-yeong were banned by the national team and their V-League club after they admitted to abusing teammates a decade ago
- At least four of their middle school teammates alleged abuse, including punching, being threatened with a knife and being forced to hand over money
Lee Jae-yeong, 25, and her twin sister Lee Da-yeong, who both play for the Heungkuk Life Insurance Pink Spiders in South Korea’s domestic V-League, admitted to bullying their teammates 10 years earlier in middle school and apologised to the unidentified victims. The Pink Spiders also suspended the twins.
At least four former middle school teammates have come forward with allegations that the twins had verbally and physically abused them, taking advantage of their status as star players.
“We feel a deep sense of responsibility to all fans of volleyball that we’ve let down,” said the Pink Spiders, who are currently in first place in the V-League. “Bullying among student-athletes must never occur and cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. Given the gravity of the situation, we have decided to ban the two athletes indefinitely.”
In dropping the twins from the national team, the Korea Volleyball Association (KVA), the sport’s amateur governing body, cited a rule stating that any athlete or official who causes “social disturbances” may not represent the country at international competitions.
The Lees helped South Korea punch a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics by winning the Asian qualifying tournament in January, with Jae-yeong acting as an outside hitter and Da-yeong as a setter. Jae-yeong was also the captain of the team.
Both enjoy celebrity status in South Korea, and have appeared on various television entertainment programmes as well as a Kia Motors TV commercial. But the TV stations on which the programmes and advertisement appeared quickly distanced themselves from the pair as public outrage over the matter grew, dropping them from future appearances.
Kia Motors also removed a scheduled TV commercial starring the Lees.
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A social media post written by one of the four former teammates of the twins who alleged abuse listed 21 instances of misconduct while they all played on a volleyball team at Geunyeong Middle School in the southern city of Jeonju.
“Don’t you remember you hit me in the mouth, sending my glasses flying off my nose?”, one of the victims wrote, referring to an event where she apparently had not cheered loudly enough for the team.
In another incident, one of the twins wielded a knife, threatening a teammate who refused to do an errand for her at night.
The twins often physically abused their teammates, forcibly collected money from them so they could buy snacks, and told them to stay away because they were “smelly and dirty”, the post said.
“Many years have passed but I am still suffering from the trauma. But the abusers, with their smiles, feature on various TV programmes,” she wrote.
As the post trended on social media and thousands of fans reacted angrily, the Lees took to Instagram to make their apologies.
“I hurt many people because of my irresponsible behaviour in the past when I was immature,” Jae-yeung said. “I sincerely apologise for those who spent their time in pain due to my misbehaviour at school.”
Da-yeung apologised to her school teammates “for the bad memories”.
“If the victims allow me, I will visit them in person and apologise,” she said.
The KVA’s online message board was bombarded with calls for the players’ permanent ban from the national team.
“The revelation shows the Lees have gone beyond the limits,” said a post on a message board of the Korean Volleyball Association. “They should be kicked out forever. Otherwise, we are not going to go watch volleyball games any more.”
Chung Yong-cheol, a professor of sports psychology at Sogang University, said the Lees‘ case was a snapshot of widespread violence within Korean sports, where misconduct by star athletes or coaches tends to be overlooked so long as they win medals at the Olympics and other international events.
“Unless this country’s distorted system of focusing on raising elites in sports is corrected, violence among athletes will continue to take place in South Korea,” Professor Chung told This Week in Asia.
The incident comes at a time when professional volleyball has been gaining in popularity in South Korea, with TV ratings for some big matches in the V-League rivalling or even surpassing those of baseball, the nation’s No. 1 sport, in recent years.
On Saturday, two male volleyball stars – Song Myung-geun and Sim Kyoung-sub of the OK Financial Group OKman – were forced to confront their own history of bullying after a former school teammate alleged that he had been punched by them. Both apologised for their behaviour and offered to sit out the rest of the season.
Such abuse in amateur and professional sports is not confined to volleyball, however.
A pro baseball team, NC Dinos, stopped recruiting a pitcher last year and another team, Kiwoom Heroes, suspended a different pitcher for 50 games in 2018 after past instances of school bullying emerged.
Triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon of the Gyeongju City team took her own life last June after complaining of abuse by her coach, Kim Gyu-bong, team captain Jang Yun-jung and a team masseur.
Kim and Jang received jail sentences of seven and four years, respectively, while the masseur was handed an eight-year prison term.
Last month, Cho Jae-beom, the 39-year-old former coach of Olympic speedskating gold medallist Shim Suk-hee, 23, was sentenced to 10-and-a-half years in prison for sexually assaulting and physically abusing her for more than three years.