Sports News

Korea's traditional sport faces identity crisis

SEOUL (Reuters) - Sumo is hot. Ssirum is not. South Korea’s traditional brand of wrestling, called ssirum, has a lot in common with Japan’s national sport sumo. Both are centuries old, steeped in tradition and feature jumbo-sized wrestlers battling in a small circle.

File photo shows South Korea's former champion of 'Ssirum', a form of traditional Korean wrestling, Choi Hong-man (R) punching Japan's Hawaiian-born former sumo yokozuna (grand champion) Akebono during the semi-final of the K-1 World Grand Prix 2005, the Japanese mixed martial arts event, in Seoul on March 19, 2005. Choi won for technical knock out and qualified to the final. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

While sumo is flush with cash, fans and name recognition, however, ssirum is facing a financial crisis, an organizational crisis, an identity crisis -- in short, just a whole lot of trouble.

“It’s hopeless for ssirum,” said Kang Woong-hee, a senior South Korean sports writer who covered the sport during its heyday in the mid 1980s.

“They have failed to attract young TV viewers and market themselves. The only people who watch ssirum these days are old folks like myself.”

Under authoritarian President Chun Doo-hwan, who wanted to divert public attention from repressive conditions in his 1980 to 1988 government, professional sports were heavily promoted. Ssirum as well as baseball thrived.

Ssirum tournaments around major holidays were family events, with more than half of the population tuning in to see the biggest matches on television.

Ssirum broadcasts these days are seen in about 0.25 percent of South Korean households. Tournaments used to sell out quickly at venues seating thousands. Now, the competitions are held in front of audiences numbering in the hundreds.

Ssirum’s biggest names once married top actresses and earned big money. Now prize money is small and the closest most wrestlers ever get to celebrities is when they sit in a movie theater and watch them on the screen.


The sport has been a part of Korea’s village festivals, military training and court ceremonies for centuries.

“Ssirum’s origin dates back to the history of the human race,” the Korean Ssirum Organization says.

A ssirum match starts with two wrestlers facing each other while on their knees in an eight-metre sandpit ring. The wrestlers secure their grips on a cloth sash tied around the waist of their opponent, called a “satba”.

They rise to their feet, wait for a signal from the referee and then use strength, leverage and savvy to force the other wrestler to the sand.

Unlike sumo, a wrestler does not win by pushing his opponent out of the circle, which results in a restart in ssirum.

“The match can often be decided on the fight for the grip on the satba. TV broadcasters hate this because it makes for mundane pictures,” Kang said.

One of the biggest problems ssirum faces is the loss of professional teams. In the 1980s, major conglomerates such as Samsung had stables but now they have shifted their sponsorship to sports with more international appeal.

A feud has broken out among ssirum’s governing bodies for control. The Korean Ssirum Association (KSA), the amateur body that governs the most teams and wrestlers, is hoping to become the sport’s leader. The Korea Ssirum Organization -- the governing body for professionals that has seen its power dwindle -- is protesting at what is sees as a power grab.

“There are four big ssirum associations. It’s important to bring them into one and then push ssirum as a world-famous sport,” said Lee Hyung-seok, a senior managing director of KSA.

“Last year, we couldn’t broadcast our biggest tournament because of the two associations’ conflict. The sport’s fans complained to no end,” Lee said.


Another shortcoming of ssirum has been that the sport has shut its doors to outsiders.

Sumo has taken in wrestlers from places such as Mongolia, the United States, Bulgaria, Russia and South Korea. It has required them to learn the Japanese language and culture and has become stronger as the overseas wrestlers have added new skills to the tradition-bound sport.

Ssirum officials have kept foreigners out, believing they would overpower local talent and taint the sport’s link to Korean culture, sports writers have said.

The sport has also lost its star appeal. Its greatest wrestler over the past few year, Choi Hong-man, has left for the far more lucrative K-1, a type of kickboxing that has been gaining in popularity.

Taekwondo, Korea’s more popular national sport, has become an Olympic event and almost every man in South Korea has some experience in the martial art because it is a part of compulsory military training.

Yoon Sung-min, a ssirum wrestler at Inha University in Seoul said he started in the sport because he was a chubby child trying to lose weight.

“Not only me but most ssirum wrestlers had no choice because they started it from their childhood,” he said.

“It is dark now, but I hope the future will be brighter.”