Match-Fixing Scandals Strike South Korean Professional Sports

By Shinji Ryu on March 5, 2012
Kim Tae-Kyun, highest-payed player in the KBO at Yokohama Stadium. By: Taka (CC)

In recent decades, South Korean professional sports have garnered an increasing amount of popularity. With South Korea becoming firmly entrenched in the world economy as one of the more affluent nations, its citizens have spent more on entertainment and sports. However, in recent months, a dark side of professional sports was revealed, as match-fixing scandals have been uncovered in two of the most popular sports: football and baseball. The fact that highly-paid, recognizable players were involved in the scandals has especially disappointed the fans.

In May 2011, the Korean football league, the K-League, was rocked by its first match-fixing scandal. Upon investigation, several players from Gwangju-Sangmu, the team run by the Korean Armed Forces Athletic Corps, admitted to participating in match-fixing. Tempted by bribes from the gambling industry, the players threw matches, receiving at times over $100,000 in return. The most recognizable player to admit guilt was Choi Sung-Kuk, a speedy striker, who even made twenty-four appearances as a member of the South Korean national team. Nicknamed “The Little Maradona” for his smallish stature and quick, nifty runs, Choi had once been a prodigious player in the K-League. For his part in the scandal, Choi was included in the list of fifty players who were indefinitely banned from playing professionally in South Korea. The scandal greatly debilitated the credibility of the K-League and professional football in South Korea, which had gained notoriety by producing talented contributors in the English Premier League, such as Park Ji-Sung and Lee Chong-Yong, in recent years.

In addition to the K-League, the Korea Baseball Organization was hit by a match-fixing scandal. In February, the government investigation received tips on match-fixing in the KBO. The details of the operation were revealed by subsequent inquiries by the prosecutor's office. The scandal mainly revolved around minor prop bets, such as guessing the team that would give up the first walk of the game. Those of the gambling industry paid off pitchers to intentionally walk a batter in the first inning. The investigation is still ongoing, but two pitchers from the LG Twins ballclub, Park Hyun-June and Choi Sung-Hyun, have admitted guilt and has had their professional careers put on hold by the KBO. Park, the ace of the LG Twins pitching staff, has been met with harsh criticism from the press and the fans, for his abdication of responsibility to his team and for the fact that he had played for the national team as a representative of South Korea on the international stage. Upon initially being investigated, Park assured his fans of his innocence, daring to flash a confident smirk when questioned by the press. That show of bravado notwithstanding, Park admitted his guilt only a few days later and was accused of betraying his fans' trust in him. The investigation has yet to finish, but it appears highly unlikely that these two players will be able to continue their baseball careers, and Korean baseball fans are left dreading the possibility that more of their athletic icons will be found guilty.

As the South Korean sports scene gradually recovers from these match-fixing scandals, a question remains unanswered. Are these scandals simply inevitable for a relatively small sports market with lower player salaries? Could we, the fans, possibly come to understand the choices made by some of the players? Kim Tae-Kyun, the highest-payed player in the KBO, makes less than $2 million per season, while Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid MLB player, earned $32 million in 2011. With lower salaries, South Korean players may be more susceptible to the temptation for easy money from match-fixing. However, in most cases, players received only a few thousand dollars for their cooperation. For Park Hyun-June, who was set to earn more than $100,000 during the upcoming season, risking his entire livelihood for such a comparatively paltry sum of money seems so illogical and downright idiotic. The fact that these players sold their integrity as athletes for money that they can earn in a single week of the season is a source of great indignation and frustration for the fans. From their perspective, to see these players waste their athletic gift, their opportunity to play a game in front of thousands of cheering fans, is a real-life Greek tragedy — the uneasy experience of witnessing the downfall of a great hero. Perhaps when the immediate reaction of anger subsides, what is left will be pity for these gifted athletes who threw away those talents that many only wish they possessed.