S. Korea's 'Garlic Girls' curlers create stink over alleged exploitation

©Agence France-Presse

South Korea's 'Garlic Girls' were a sensation at this year's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Seoul (AFP) - The 'Garlic Girls' South Korean curling team who became a media sensation with their unlikely run to this year's Olympic final have accused their coaches of exploitation and verbal abuse as their sporting dreams turn sour.

The five women from a small rural town famous for farming the pungent bulb, rank outsiders at the start of the Pyeongchang Winter Games, shot to fame after stunning top teams Canada and Switzerland.

Their giant-killing feats -- despite limited funding for their little-known sport -- quickly earned them celebrity status in the South, with memes of the curlers going viral online.

But just months after becoming the first Asian curlers to claim Olympic silver, they say they are "miserable" and in a "desperate situation".

Sidelined from the national team, the women have slipped from seventh to 14th in the world rankings.

Former Korean Curling Federation (KCF) vice-president Kim Kyung-doo subjected them to "countless cases of verbal abuse", they said, and their coaches were imposing excessive control over their private lives.

The team accused them of seeking to sideline glasses-wearing captain Kim Eun-jung -- whose trademark stare became an emblem of the Pyeongchang Games -- after she married and told the coaches she planned to start a family.

"The human rights of the athletes are being violated," the curlers wrote in a letter to the Korean Sports and Olympic Committee (KSOC). "We've reached a point where it has become unbearable."

The coaches had also kept back their prize money from international competitions, they added, reportedly amounting to tens of thousands of dollars since 2015. 

Coaches are hugely powerful in South Korea's hierarchical sporting system, with the power to dictate an athlete's career in a close-knit community where personal connections are almost as important as talent.

The coaching staff denies the accusations.

National trials

The curlers are also known as 'Team Kim' for their shared surname, and use food-based nicknames for ease of identification: the captain is Annie -- a brand of yogurt -- Kim Yeong-mi is Pancake, Kim Kyeong-ae is Steak, Kim Seon-yeong is Sunny -- as in 'sunny side up' -- and Kim Cho-hee is Chocho, a type of cookie.

They say they have been the unwitting victims of a power struggle within the Korean Curling Federation.

Kim Kyung-doo -- the KCF official who they accuse of repeatedly berating them -- is a longstanding backer of the team and the father of their head coach, whose husband oversees their administrative and financial affairs.

Kim is suing the KCF after he was dismissed for failing to organise an election for the presidency, which he was holding in an interim role. His daughter is also embroiled in a dispute with the organising body.

The coaches discouraged the curlers from competing in the national trials, the team claimed, in an effort to deprive the KCF of their star attraction.

In the event the group entered at short notice but with little preparation, they only finished second. That left them unable to take part in international competitions with only the national representatives' costs covered by the KSOC, and the cash-strapped KCF unable to afford to send a second team.

"We were baffled when we were told not to try out for the national team," the curlers said, adding: "We cannot but think that we are being used in their personal dispute.

"We have been at a standstill since the Olympics and we are miserable."

'Not obedient'

In a separate interview with South Korean broadcaster SBS, the curlers accused the coaching staff of attempting to undermine captain Kim after she confronted them on the team's behalf.

"Each time I became someone who wasn't obedient," Kim Eun-jung told SBS.

The team's administrator Jang Ban-seok insisted everything the coaches had done was in the interests of the curlers.

The team had to prepare for captain Kim's pregnancy plans, he said.

"Eun-jung is our only skip and we can't just rely on Eun-jung," Jang told AFP. "If Eun-jung becomes pregnant and leaves, we wouldn't have a skip."

In an emailed statement to reporters, Jang said all the team's prize money had been spent on overseas training and competitions with the full consent of the athletes.

"None of the coaching staff were motivated by personal greed," he added.

The sports ministry in Seoul has launched an investigation.