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How to Boost your Medal Count in the Olympics, South Korean-Style

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This following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist who covers Japan and various other countries in East and Southeast Asia, and Jieun Chang, foreign law intern at the Global Legal Research Directorate. Sayuri has previously written posts for In Custodia Legis on various topics, including Two Koreas Separated by Demilitarized ZoneEnglish Translations of Post-World War II South Korean Laws, Laws and Regulations Passed in the Aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and Changes to the Law on Sexual Offenses in Japan.

The Pyeongchang Olympics start today, February 8, 2018. Expectations are high for the people in the host country, South Korea. The Korean Sport & Olympic Committee boasts that South Korea ranked “top five in the final medal tables at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and has retained its top ten ranking in six of the seven Summer Games since the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games.” The website, Olympic Glory in Proportion, attempts to show who leads the world in medals per capita. According to this website, South Korea ranked no. 41 at the 2016 Rio Olympics for medals per capita. For comparison, Great Britain, the Russian Federation, and the United States ranked no. 19, no. 42 and no. 43, respectively. If you count just the gold medals per capita, South Korea ranked no. 25. Great Britain, the Russian Federation, and the United States ranked no. 13, no. 31 and no. 30, respectively. When medals per GDP are counted, South Korea ranked no. 46; Great Britain, the Russian Federation, and the United States ranked no. 36, no. 35 and no. 64.

South Korea has set up three incentive systems to promote performances of top athletes.  They are:

  1. Alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service;
  2. Financial incentives; and
  3. Special training places.

Alternative Civilian Service

Under article 3 of the Military Service Act (Act No. 4685, Dec. 31, 1993), every male citizen of South Korea must perform military service. However, Olympic medalists may fulfill their military obligations by serving as sports personnel for 34 months without being on active duty. Article 33-7, paragraph 1 of the Act states:

The Commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration may transfer persons recommended by the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, as persons with specialty in the field of arts or sports who are prescribed by Presidential Decree, …, to arts or sports personnel.

 (emphasis added by author)

Article 68-11 of the Enforcement Decree of the Military Service Act (Presidential Decree No. 14397, Oct. 6, 1994) defines ‘special skills in the field of … sports’ as:

A person who has won at least third prize in the Olympic Games (for a team competition, limited to those who have actually participated in the competition);

A person who has won the first prize in the Asian Games (for a team competition, limited to those who have actually participated in the competition).

Sports personnel are required to engage in voluntary sports activities for the socially vulnerable and children or adolescents for 544 hours during their service period. Also, they must receive basic military training as part of their service. (Article 68-12 of the Enforcement Decree).

Financial Incentives

The South Korean government provides financial incentives for athletes who earn medals at the Olympics. Article 14, paragraph 4 of the National Sports Promotion Act states:

The State shall provide grants for encouragement or subsidies for living costs to players who have won a medal in the Olympics, Paralympics…or persons who coached them…

Article 15, paragraph 2 of the Enforcement Decree of the National Sports Promotion Act states that Olympic medalists receive the performance improvement research pension (so-called “athlete’s pension”), and their coaches are awarded the competition coach research grant as determined by the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Accordingly, the Korea Sports Promotion Foundation (KSPO) pays Olympic medalists between the minimum amount of 300,000 South Korean won (KRW) (U.S. $282) per month to the maximum of one million KRW (U.S. $940) per month during their lifetime, starting the month after the Olympic Games have ended.

National Training Center

The Taereung National Training Center (NTC) has been called “the birthplace of Korean elite athletes.” Members of national sports teams and athletes participating in international sport competitions have stayed at the NTC before competitions. It was established with the goal of reinvigorating Korean sports by the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee, following the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

It was replaced by the much larger Jincheon National Training Center on September 27, 2017, though speed skaters and figure skaters will still use the Taereung skating rink. The Jincheon NTC is located about 90 kilometers south of Seoul and has 21 training facilities and eight buildings for lodging with 823 rooms.

The National Athletes Training Management Guidelines (no. 47 on the chart) set out the rules regarding the use of the training centers.  Once national athletes are selected, the heads of the different disciplines may make a request for use of the national training center for a certain period to the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee. (Guidelines, art. 5)  National athletes are required to reside in the training center for the period of training. (Id. art. 8) While participating in the national training, athletes and their coaches are paid monthly by the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee. (Id. art. 24).

Much envied winners of the arrow-shooting contest – the national game of the highest aristocracy – Korea. 1904. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Change of Public Sentiments

To obtain more medals, South Korea has focused its attention on particular sports, especially minor ones, in which South Korea would be able to obtain more medals, such as archery, handball, and speed skating.  South Korea has spent 70% of its sports budget on elite athletes.

Until the 1988 Seoul Olympics, South Korea’s main purpose was to beat North Korea and Japan in international competitions.  After the 1988 Olympics, enhancing the nation’s prestige abroad became more important.  However, as South Korea becomes wealthier and more developed, people are starting to question whether tax money should be used for sports in order to enhance the national prestige. More people have started to think that the money should be used instead for physical activities for general public health and recreation.

But because this year’s Olympics is in their home country, South Koreans are enthusiastic to win more medals!

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