An uncomfortable truth: athletes need protecting

A South Korean triathlete’s suicide shines the harshest spotlight on the world of multisport and shows how the most vulnerable are still being left unprotected, says Tim Heming

mental health in professional athletes

The Netflix documentary Athlete A delivers a disturbing insight into the toxicity of USA Gymnastics following more than two decades of child abuse that took place at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar. The 56-year-old received jail terms totalling 360 years in 2018, the court cases made more poignant by the testimonies of 156 survivors. To see it retold through their eyes not only highlighted the atrocities of Nassar’s crimes, but also how USA Gymnastics failed these women.

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It showed how easily a lauded national federation, one that revels in its trove of Olympic gold, belies a reality of harbouring serial abuse. With the pressures of reputation, sponsorships and jobs to uphold, priorities were warped, others became unforgivably complicit.

As the closing credits rolled, an email landed from the International Triathlon Union press department and concerned the death of South Korean triathlete, Choi Suk-Hyeon.

Choi had reportedly taken her own life after enduring years of physical and verbal abuse from her coaching staff and doctor. The details are harrowing. Audio footage sent from Choi and released by Korean news channel YTN appears to corroborate the claims. In one tape, the sound of slapping by a male coach can be heard as Choi is disciplined. It’s also alleged she was made to eat copious amounts of bread and then vomit as punishment for weight gain.

The 22-year-old, who won bronze in the junior women’s event at the 2015 Asian Triathlon Championships and went on to race in the senior World Series in Yokohama and Gold Coast, filed numerous complaints to the governing body, but in chilling echoes of the Nassar case, they weren’t addressed.

The Korean Olympic committee has launched an investigation and the ITU urged the Korea Triathlon Federation to follow suit but, as we’ve seen countless times, sporting federations investigating themselves is a self-serving approach to buy time for an image makeover. It should be handed over to criminal investigators.

Given numerous other accusations of coaching malpractice in South Korea, it would be easy to dismiss the case as an endemic problem within its domestic sport, but that would be a mistake. Abuse has the potential to manifest anywhere, from beginner to elite, and in such tight-knit athlete-coaching relationships it’s easy to disguise. While Choi realised her mistreatment, many don’t, instead normalising their predicament because of emotional trust.

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On paper, safeguarding procedures will never have looked more comprehensive, but they are merely a front unless protocols are rigorously applied, athlete welfare is uncompromisable and they are encouraged to speak up. But not just the athlete. Those in positions of power need to find strength of character to call out their peers, however uncomfortable it is. Choi’s case only came to the fore because she jumped to her death. How many other cases are out there with athletes suffering in silence?