By Jung Min-ho
Korea’s star rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae has found herself caught in a power struggle between her agency, IB Sport, and the Korea Gymnastic Association (KGA).
Son, who finished an unprecedented fifth in the London Olympics, saw her long-trusted mentor Kim Ji-hee has tendered her resignation from the KGA.
The friction began over whether Son should attend the Serie A Championships scheduled for Nov. 3.
The KGA ruled that she should not attend the competition and the gymnast only learned of the decision at Incheon International Airport. When she tried to check in for her flight, she was told that the ticket, supplied by the Italian organizers had been cancelled after the KGA informed them that Son would not be competing.
Son was not available for comment.
“As coach, I have felt limitations in controlling the athletes’ training and discipline,” Kim was quoted as saying by Sports Chosun. “And I felt responsible (for it).”
The KGA said that it decided not to allow Son’s participation in Serie A Championships due to concerns over an ankle injury she is carrying.
The Serie A Championships is a top-class event that renowned stars, including London Olympic gold medalist Kanaeva Evgenia and Daria Kondakova, attended last year.
An IB Sports official, who refused to be named, said the decision is mainly attributed to Son’s refusal over the KGA’s request for her to participate in Aeon Cup 2012 Worldwide R.G. Club Championships in Tokyo last month.
“They asked Son to attend the Aeon Cup when she was struggling due to an ankle injury,” he told The Korea Times, “Although she was able to perform minor techniques that required little ankle strength, she couldn’t perform harder moves, so she turned down the request.”
After the refusal, the KGA officials harbored hard feeling against Son, which led to the decision to block her from participating in other events, said the IB Sports official.
“What is funny about the decision is that they haven’t even checked her ankle injury in person,” he said. “If they were really concerned about her condition, they should have at least come to check the injury. With that, the reason just seems like a pretext for keeping her under their control.”
Meanwhile, KGA officials have expressed concerns over the commercial exploitation of Son’s agency.
“We’ve come to the decision that she needs to put in more time in developing her program and further training,” a KGA official said, requesting anonymity. “It’s a misunderstanding that we disallowed her to go to the Serie A Championships because Son did not take part in the Aeon Cup. The role of the association and her agency should be strictly divided.”
Son is accountable to the KGA, which has the ultimate say over national team gymnasts, while her agency IB has been critical in providing the financial assistance that allowed the gymnast to train in Russia for the past year.
As the conflict between IB Sports and KGA shows no sign of being resolved, it is expected to impede Son’s growth as well as that of other young gymnasts. As Kim has played a significant role in the team, the effect of her quitting is also anticipated to negatively affect the nation’s young gymnasts.
한국 리듬체조 간판스타 손연재가 소속사인 IB 스포츠와 대한체조협회 갈등 사이에서, 본인이 희망하던 국제경기 참가 금지 조치에 이어서 오랜 스승인 김지희 코치와도 이별해야 하는 상황에 놓였다.
초등학교 때부터 런던올림픽 종합순위 5위의 영광의 순간까지 손연재와 함께 해온 김지희 코치는, 손연재 선수의 이탈리아 세리에A 초청대회 출전 여부에서 붉어져 나온 대한체조협회의 연석회의에서, “대표코치로서 선수훈련 및 통제에 한계를 느꼈다. 책임을 통감한다"며 사임의사를 밝혔다.
연석회의에서는 또한 건강상의 이유로 손연재 선수의 이탈리아 세리에A 초청대회 불허 결정이 내려졌고, 향후 손연재 선수의 계획을 묻는 질문에 협회 관계자는, “재활과 함께 태릉선수촌에서 훈련”이 이뤄질 것 이라고 밝혔다.
IB 스포츠 관계자에 따르면, 갈등의 시작은 오래 전부터 있어왔지만, “지난 9월 협회가 손연재 선수에게 추천한 2012년 이온컵 대회 참석을 손연재 선수가 거부하면서 갈등이 표면화 되었다”고 전했다. 그에 따르면, 이번 세리에A 초청대회 출전 불허 결정의 원인이 이온컵 대회 참석 거부에 있다는 것이다.
또한, “협회가 진정으로 손연재 선수의 건강을 걱정한다면, 직접 발목 부상 정도를 체크하는 것이 당연지사인데, 협회는 그런 노력도 보이지 않았다”며 쓴 소리를 했다.
이에 대해, 대한체조협회 관계자는 “이번 갈등은 소통의 부재와 더불어, 협회와 소속사의 역할이 분명하게 구분되지 않은 데서 비롯된 것”이라며 화살을 소속사로 돌렸다.
갈등의 골이 깊어가면서, 각종 국내, 외 대회 참석여부를 결정하고 주관하는 대한체육회와 재정적인 지원을 해주는 소속사 사이에서, 아직 가능성이 더 많은 18살 손연재는 이러지도 저러지도 못하는 입장에 처했다.
김지희 코치가 리듬체조 대표팀에서 맡아온 막중한 역할을 고려해 봤을 때, 대표팀 꿈나무들이 감당해야 하는 후유증은 더 클 것으로 보인다.