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The so-called Garlic Girls who swept to fame during their stirring run to an Olympic curling silver medal have alleged that they were verbally abused by a South Korean official and subjected to unreasonable orders from coaches.
South Korea's sports ministry announced today a joint investigation with the national Olympic committee into the allegations.
The five-member women's curling team sparked unprecedented national attention for their sport in February before losing to Sweden in the final on home ice at the Pyeongchang Olympics. The team sent a letter to the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee (KSOC) last week to outline their allegations.
The women, from a remote province famous for its garlic, captured hearts in a country that barely recognised curling before and became sought-after models for commercials.
The attention was so great during the games that their coach took away their cellphones to shield the curlers from any pressure. The Garlic Girls ultimately lost to Sweden in the gold medal match.
In the letter, Kim Eun Jung, Kim Seon Yeong and Kim Cho Hee as well as the sisters Kim Yeong Ae and Kim Yeong Mi accused former Korean Curling Federation (KCF) vice-president Kim Kyong Doo of verbal abuse and team coaches of giving unreasonable orders and subjecting their private lives to excessive control.
"The human rights of the athletes are being violated," the athletes, the first Asian team to win a curling silver, wrote. "We've reached a point where it has become unbearable."
The curlers also accused coaches of holding back prize money and trying to sideline captain Kim Eun Jung after learning of her plans to start a family.
The coaches "tried to rule Kim Eun Jung off the team after she got married in July," the letter said. "They separated the skip and the team captain's role to minimise Kim Eun Jung's status on the team. They also tried not to include Kim Eun Jung in team training."
The players said that they no longer wish to work with head coach Kim Min Jung, daughter of Kim Kyung Doo, and her husband, Jang Ban Seok, who is mixed doubles coach. The coaching staff deny the allegations.
"Kim Eun Jung had a plan to have a baby and, as a coach, in that case, we need to think about having a new skip," Jang said in a statement. "We've never trained in a way that would lead to a curler being kicked off the team."
Jang also denied any funds had been withheld from the athletes, saying that the team had agreed that prize money would be spent on overseas training and competitions.
"We thought it was not right to distribute the prize money to each athlete for private use, because that money was earned as a national team supported by the KSOC and other sports organisations," he said. "Besides that, money received from non-sports events was all paid to the curlers' private accounts."
The investigation will begin next week and will include officials from the sports ministry, the national Olympic committee and the team's home province of North Gyeongsang.
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