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Exploring the Truth: A Critical Approach to the Success of Korean Elite Sport

This article examines the structural problems that have accompanied South Korea’s increasing emphasis on success in elite international sport. After discussing how this was brought about by the political context of the 1960s and 1970s, we focus on three particular social issues: the educational problems experienced by student-athletes, the problems these cause in later life, and the physical and sexual abuse that is committed by coaches. The study draws on evidence from three selected investigative documentary programs aired by the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) in 2007 and 2008, and this is supplemented by data from other media publications, official government documents, research reports, and a series of interviews. We draw on the concept of path dependency and the notion of Confucianism to provide insight into how these issues accompanied by the nation’s elite sport-focused policy have proved enduring. Overall, and with reference to wider socio-cultural factors, we show how South Korea’s emphasis on sport has brought success for the nation but problems for the athletes who have contributed to it.