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Kim Gyu-bong (right), the former head coach of the triathlon team at semi-pro club Gyeongju City Hall, has been sentenced to seven years in prison. Photo: EPA

Choi Suk-hyeon suicide case: South Korean triathlon coach and captain sentenced to jail over bullying, abuse

  • Coach Kim Gyu-bong was given seven years in prison for verbally and physically abusing Choi as well as diverting funds, while team captain Jang Yun-jung was given four years
  • Triathlete Choi took her own life last June after complaining of abuse from Kim, Jang and a team masseur, who was last week given an eight-year jail term for repeatedly beating her
South Korea
A South Korean triathlon coach and an Asian Games silver medallist have been convicted of abusing an athlete, closing a chapter on a high-profile suicide case that exposed the country’s win-at-all-costs sports culture.

The Daegu District Court on Friday sentenced Kim Gyu-bong, former head coach of the triathlon team at semi-pro club Gyeongju City Hall, to seven years in prison for verbally and physically abusing triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon as well as diverting funds meant for training.

Jang Yun-jung, who won a silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games and served as captain of the triathlon team, was given four years in jail, while another teammate was handed a suspended prison term of 18 months.

Choi took her own life in June last year after complaining of years of abuse from the coach, Jang, and a team masseur. The masseur was last week sentenced to eight years in prison after he was convicted of repeatedly beating Choi.

Choi Suk-hyeon scandal: life bans for South Korean triathlon coach and captain over bullying

“The accused, abusing their power, verbally and physically assaulted Choi for a long time, causing her to make a fatal choice at the age of 22,” the court ruling said.

It said “stern punishment is inevitable” for Kim, whom the court found had abused his position as a coach, repeatedly assaulted Choi, and pocketed 200 million won (US$180,700) he had collected for overseas training from athletes’ parents.

The court also found Jang was guilty of abusing Choi and other athletes over a long period of time, as well as attempting to cover up her wrongdoing when a criminal investigation was opened into Choi’s death.


“She repeatedly ridiculed the victim, forced other athletes to make false statements to cover up [what had happened],” the ruling said. “Some athletes had earlier quit the sport after being subjected to insults and inhumane abuse from Jang.”

But Choi’s father Choi Young-hee said justice had not yet been served, noting that prosecutors had sought nine years in prison for Kim and five years for Jang. He said he wanted state prosecutors to bring the case to an appeal court.

Choi’s death sparked a parliamentary hearing into the country’s sports culture, in which the physical abuse of athletes is often considered an inevitable part of training.

Last week, the former coach of South Korea’s double Olympic speed skating gold medallist was sentenced to 10 and half years in prison. Cho Jae-beom 39, was convicted of sexually assaulting and physically abusing Shim Suk-hee, 23, for more than three years.

South Korea jails former Olympic coach for sexual assault, but case ‘tip of the iceberg’: academic

Shim’s disclosure of her abuse last year sparked a widespread public uproar, prompting parliament to strike out a phrase from the law on promoting national sports that had stated the main purpose of elite sports was to project the country’s strong image abroad.


Kim Yu-kyoum, professor of physical education at the Seoul National University, said rather than relying on oversight within the system, the exposure of abuse in South Korean sports was totally dependent on the athletes themselves summoning up the courage to come forward.

“It’s not easy even to find victims and protect them in the country’s sports world,” he wrote to The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper.


“Military-style top-down hierarchy between coaches and athletes, and senior athletes and junior athletes, is still persistent. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for victims to raise their voice, and authorities settle for stopgap measures.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.