How the ‘Garlic Girls’ Overcame Abuse to Return to the Olympics

BEIJING — They were the feel-good story of the Winter Olympics in 2018: young women from a remote farming county who catapulted South Korea to curling glory by winning its first Olympic medal in the sport.

Then, that same year, the team the Korean press had nicknamed the“Garlic Girls” (in a nod to the iconic produce of their region) shocked the country by accusing their coaches of verbal and psychological abuse.

Nine months after their victory at the Games, the team called a surprise news conference during which they aired their grievances against their two coaches and the father of one of the coaches, who was also the vice president of the Korean Curling Federation.

The Garlic Girls said the trio swore at them, berated them if they interacted with other athletes, banned them from using social media and withheld their prize money. They also tried to sideline the team captain, Kim Eun-jung, after learning of her plans to start a family.

“To be honest, I’m not completely sure if we’re over this yet,” Kim Kyeong-ae, a team member, wrote in an email to The New York Times as she prepared for the Beijing Winter Olympics this month.

While some of South Korea’s top athletes have grown used to decades of harsh training and abuse, a younger generation has started to push back, inspired at least in part by the Garlic Girls.

Their news conference helped revive painful discussions about the mistreatment of athletes in South Korea, where nepotism, exploitation and misconduct have been common for decades. Elite sports in the country are notoriously hierarchical, with men often on top and athletes told not to question orders.

In 2008, the government’s National Human Rights Commission said nearly 80 percent of student athletes in middle and high schools had been subjected to physical and verbal abuse from their coaches and older teammates.

After the Garlic Girls spoke out, there was an outpouring of other accounts of abuse, including from Shim Suk-hee, a member of South Korea’s national short-track speedskating team and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, who said she had been repeatedly raped by her former coach. (Last year he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.)

Several female athletes in judo, taekwondo and wrestling also came forward to accuse their male coaches of sexual abuse.

In February 2019, after an investigation, the government said that most of the allegations made by the Garlic Girls were true. The two coaches and Kim Kyung-doo, the curling official, were banned from the sport for life.

And for the first time ever, South Korea appointed three foreign coaches to lead the women’s, men’s and mixed double curling teams at the Olympics. The Garlic Girls are set to compete against Canada in Beijing on Thursday in a round-robin match.

“Although we can’t know of and change all the corruption in the sporting world, at least in this sport we can reveal what has been going on in the hopes that it won’t happen again,” wrote Kim Kyeong-ae, 28, in her email.

But those who speak out risk being sidelined or criticized. Coaches have immense control over their athletes, who are recruited at a young age and live in dormitories. Many of them are taken out of school and feel they have no career options if they fail.

Oh Ji-hoon, a former speedskater who has trained in both the United States and South Korea, said that Korean athletes typically don’t question their coaches’ methods of discipline and training because they get used to it from a young age.

“In Korea, training programs are way more intense than those of the U.S.,” Mr. Oh said. “There is less leeway, much less flexibility and, candidly, it’s fairly common for coaches to yell at skaters.”

After the curling team went public with their accusations, Peter Gallant, a Canadian coach who guided them to their silver medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, publicly backed the players.

Mr. Gallant is now the team’s head coach, and curling experts say his experience is likely to propel the Garlic Girls to greater heights. The team adores him, referring to him as “Appa,” or father in Korean. In an email, Mr. Gallant noted that the level of respect the curlers have for those who are older than them is so high that “nothing is really questioned” during practice.

That is not necessarily good. “A coach wants his athletes to ask questions,” he added.

Four of the five Garlic Girls come from Uiseong, a farming community and a seemingly unlikely site for a sporting revolution. The rural town of 53,000 people uses a cartoon garlic bulb as the county mascot.

The Garlic Girls have said their previous coaches often made them feel ashamed for not coming from a major city. “It’s useless training people from the countryside,” they recalled being told.

Uiseong, however, is home to one of South Korea’s first curling facilities, built in 2006 after a former government official saw the sport on a trip to Canada.

Kim Eun-jung, the captain, and currently ranked seventh in the world, fell in love with the sport after trying it during gym class in middle school. She encouraged her classmate Kim Yeong-mi to join, who was followed by her younger sister, Kim Kyeong-ae.

Kim Cho-hi, the only team member not from Uiseong, also started curling in middle school, but in Gyeonggi Province, just outside of Seoul.

Because they all have the same surname, the Garlic Girls are also known as Team Kim. To differentiate themselves, each chose a nickname honoring their favorite breakfast food. Ms. Kim Eun-jung is “Annie,” the name of a yogurt brand. Kim Yeong-mi is “Pancake,” while her sister, Kyeong-ae, is “Steak.” Kim Cho-hi is “ChoCho,” a nod to chocolate cookies, which she loves to eat for breakfast. Kim Seon-yeong is “Sunny,” for sunny-side-up eggs.

The team was an underdog going into the 2018 Winter Olympics, but pulled off upsets against Canada and Switzerland, two curling powerhouses. Almost overnight, the Garlic Girls became a sensation in a country that knew little about curling.

In the past two years, the pandemic has made practice challenging. Several competitions were canceled. And unlike teams from countries where curling has long been popular, the Garlic Girls often must travel abroad for competitions and training, which has meant dealing with quarantines and spending more time away from home.

But Mr. Gallant said the team’s experience with their previous coaches prepared them for the future, even with the pandemic. In an interview with Rocks Across the Pond, a curling podcast, he said there was no question that “it created a kind of toughness in them.”

“To do what they did, to make everything public, took a lot of courage and effort,” he said. “No matter what they face now, it’s not going to be as bad as that.”

Sui-Lee Wee reported from Beijing and Jin Yu Young from Seoul.

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