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South Korean officials to probe late triathlete’s abuse claims

Choi Suk-hyeon was found dead last month at the age of 22.

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Choi Yoon-hee, vice minister of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, speaks to Park Yang-woo, right, minister of the Ministry of Culture, Sports (Newsis via AP)

Choi Yoon-hee, vice minister of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, speaks to Park Yang-woo, right, minister of the Ministry of Culture, Sports (Newsis via AP)

Choi Yoon-hee, vice minister of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, speaks to Park Yang-woo, right, minister of the Ministry of Culture, Sports (Newsis via AP)

South Korean officials have offered a public apology and vowed to investigate the death of a triathlete who had reported to government and sports bodies that she had been abused by her team coach, physical therapist and colleagues.

Choi Suk-hyeon, 22, was found dead late last month, after sending a mobile chat message asking her mother to disclose the alleged crimes of people who abused her.

Public outrage later erupted after media revelations that authorities did not act quickly, despite Ms Choi having registered petitions over the alleged abuses with several agencies.

Sports minister Park Yang-woo told a parliamentary committee meeting on Monday that he “feels heavy responsibility” for her death and has apologised to her family and the South Korean public.

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Park Yang-woo (Newsis/AP)

Park Yang-woo (Newsis/AP)

AP/PA Images

Park Yang-woo (Newsis/AP)

Vice sports minister Choi Yoon-hee told the same meeting that a 20-member investigation team was launched last week to find out why authorities did not properly respond to the athlete’s petitions and whether related sports supervisory or support bodies functioned over the case in an appropriate manner.

“We will thoroughly investigate,” the vice minister said, adding they would “sternly punish” anyone found responsible for Choi Suk-hyeon’s death.

During the parliamentary meeting, the team coach, identified by MPs as Kim Kyu-bong, and two athletes accused of abusing Ms Choi, said they had never beaten or abused her.

Ms Choi’s cause of death was recorded as suicide. State prosecutors are separately investigating the abuse allegations she made before her death, according to the Korean Sports and Olympic Committee.

Last week, the world’s triathlon’s governing body expressed its shock over Ms Choi’s death and asked South Korea’s local triathlon federation and Olympic committee to share information about her case.

The alleged abuses happened when Ms Choi belonged to a team run by the local government of Gyeongju city in the south-east.

Earlier on Monday, two of her ex-teammates told reporters they and Ms Choi had been beaten and suffered verbal and other abuses by their team’s coach, a physical therapist and senior teammates.

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Ministers have vowed to punish anyone found responsible (AP)

Ministers have vowed to punish anyone found responsible (AP)

AP/PA Images

Ministers have vowed to punish anyone found responsible (AP)

One of them said she and Ms Choi were once forced to eat bread worth 200,000 won (£133) until dawn as a punishment for gaining weight.

Ms Choi, a junior bronze medallist at the 2015 Triathlon Asian Championships, was first picked in the national team in 2015, while still in high school.

Her last major race was in October, when she finished the South Korean championship in 14th place.

The abusive treatment of athletes has been a deep-rooted problem in South Korea, which considers achievements in the Olympics and other international sports events as a major source of national pride.

Athletes often live in dormitories, where coaches often exercise overbearing control, and they skip school from a young age in order to perform well at athletic events, which experts say leaves them with less education and career choices, in turn making it harder for them to resist unjust treatment.

In recent years, South Korean female athletes, wrestlers, judo and taekwondo competitors have accused their male coaches of sexually abusing them.

Members of the country’s silver medal-winning Olympic curling team, cheered as the Garlic Girls for their hometown’s famed produce, accused their former coaches of verbal abuse and holding back prize money.

PA