A Song for Ssireum

A profile of the Uiseong Middle School ssireum team and what it means for the future of the sport

By Karl Schutz

UISEONG, South Korea — Ssireum, a style of Korean wrestling as old as Korea itself, has been seeing a slow and silent death in South Korea in recent decades.

The sport, in which two plus-sized competitors wrestle in a circular sand pit, looks at first glance to be just like sumo, the form of heavyweight wrestling found in next-door Japan. Yet while sumo matches draw large crowds and certain superstar sumo wrestlers enjoy celebrity status in Japan, in Korea professional ssireum is almost nonexistent and the sport is struggling to draw new recruits and fans alike.

That all looks different when you venture into Uiseong, Korea, a small agricultural town in Gyeongbuk province that’s most famous for its garlic. Uiseong is home to the only publicly-funded ssireum program in South Korea. It’s a rigorous, years-long program that begins in elementary school and continues until you graduate high school or university and decide to play at a semi-professional level.

If we go to Uiseong Middle School, where I taught for a year, we can see where the ssireum players begin to separate from their peers — physically but also socially and academically. While most middle school boys’ lives revolve around a combination of studying and League of Legends, the ssireum players only have time to eat, sleep, and practice ssireum.

The story of the Uiseong Middle School ssireum team gives us an interesting window into the future of the sport. Wrapped up in the team’s story, though, is the greater tension found across many spectrums of modern Korean life, where old cultural rites and traditions (like making kimchi) fail to take hold in the younger generation of Koreans.

Every morning the twelve students on the Uiseong Middle School ssireum team wake up at 5:50 a.m. and head to their early morning workout, scheduled for 6 to 7 a.m. They exercise, eat breakfast, then prepare for school. They have a long day ahead of them.

The three hundred or so students at the all-boys Uiseong Middle School must show up to school by 8:20 a.m., dressed in their uniforms, a requirement for almost all public school students in South Korea.

The ssireum players arrive at school a few minutes before 9 a.m., when the first class starts, wearing whatever suits them for that day. Typically they wear a t-shirt and shorts.

In classes, most of the wrestlers kind of drift through the day. They do not study, nor do they go to supplementary private learning academies (hagwons) like the other students, so they’re often behind in their classes. “Teachers understand our situation and cut us some slack,” one of the ssireum players told me.

The Korean Spirit: Jo Yong Tak, a 9th grader, takes down his opponent — and helps him back up.

After school, it’s back to training. The ssireum training facilities — which include a special sand-lined gymnasium, a weight room, a cafeteria, and dormitories— are right next to the school.

The afternoon workout is from 4:10 to 6:10 p.m. and is followed by a family-style dinner in the cafeteria. After dinner, except on Mondays and Tuesdays, the students finish up the day with weight training from 7:05 to 9:20 p.m.

The next day, they wake up at 5:50 a.m. and do it again.

The Uiseong Middle School ssireum team, posing after an afternoon workout.

The Uiseong Middle School ssireum team is something of an institution in South Korea. It was founded in 1971, making it one of the oldest programs in the country, and has produced some of the sport’s most famous professional players, like Lee Jun Hee and Lee Tae Hyun.

One element of Uiseong’s success in building a first-class team is that all the costs are paid for by the local government. The city government pays for the program’s training facilities, coaching, meals, and more. That’s no small commitment. If a student wants to play ssireum outside of Uiseong, their parents must cover those expenses, which typically amount to 1,000,000 won ($1,000 USD) a month.

The prestige of training in Uiseong attracts top talent from all over the country. Kim Bo Geun, a 9th grader at Uiseong Middle School, came all the way from Seoul to join the wresting team. He lives in the team dormitories during the week and makes the three-hour commute to Seoul on weekends to see his family.

The students on the Uiseong Middle School ssireum team acknowledge their situation is tough — living away from family and training for over five hours a day most days — but they’re already thinking about how the hard work they do now will pay off later in their careers.

When asked about their motivations and dreams, the students I interviewed laid out a typical career trajectory for a ssireum player today: compete at the university level, hopefully play in the minor leagues for a couple of years, and then retire and become a ssireum coach or professor. None of them mentioned playing professionally past the minor leagues.

Shin Hyuk at a tournament in Chungju, July 2015. Photo courtesy of Gyeongbuk Ilbo.

Some of the students are already well on their way to making names for themselves in the sport.

Shin Hyuk, a 9th grade wrestler, won the championship title last month at the 52nd Annual Presidential National Business Wrestling Tournament in Chungju, South Korea. He placed silver at the 44th Annual National Youth Sports Competition in June on Jeju Island. Jo Yong Tak, another 9th grader from Uiseong, took home the gold.

It’s hard to hear the students talk about their dreams without thinking about the sad state the sport is in today in South Korea. The country used to have several professional teams, but after the 1997 Asian financial crisis all but one died out and the sport never bounced back. Today, that one remaining team, the Hyundai Elephants, competes with minor league teams and some international teams.

Professional ssireum is all but dead inside Korea, but outside the peninsula it lives on in a bizarre network of countries abroad that have adopted their own version of the sport. Countries like Mongolia, Spain, Switzerland, and Brazil each field their own professional-level wrestling teams modeled after ssireum.

The coach, Lee Byung Chul (left)

When I asked the coach of the Uiseong Middle School wrestling team, Lee Byung Chul, about the future of the sport, he told me that people interested in promoting ssireum need to emphasize its moral spirit.

The sport’s “Korean spirit” came up again and again in my interviews and research. It’s hard to define, but a rough translation includes words like “respect” and “politeness.” The way players bow to each other at the beginning and end of each match is often cited as an example of the sport’s spirit.

The coach’s answer about the Korean spirit when I asked about the future of the sport reveals a general theme in the way Koreans think about ssireum. To everyone I talked to, any conversation about the sport was always wrapped up in a sense of nostalgia and nationalism.

That’s the way ssireum is portrayed in Korean pop culture too. The blockbuster Korean film, Ode To My Father (2014), features a brief scene with ssireum players. The film tells the story of an older Korean man’s life through a series of flashbacks, starting with the Korean War and continuing under the backdrop of almost every major event in modern Korean history. The film’s all about nostalgia, and that’s exactly how it presents ssireum.

In the scene from the film, one of the main characters, Dal-goo (played by Oh Dal Su), makes a snarky comment about how much a group of fifth grade ssireum players are eating. “Just stuffing your face won’t help you in wrestling,” he says. That interaction about sums up how Koreans today see ssireum: a sport of the past, consigned to big Korean boys who eat too much.

An advertisement for the Dongjakgu ssireum team in a Seoul subway station, July 2015.

If ssireum continues down the path it’s heading in South Korea, it will only exist as a caricature of itself and not a real sport.

Schools like Uiseong Middle School that invest in their ssireum programs and athletes are the exception, not the rule. Even in Uiseong, the rate of attrition among wrestlers is high and, by the coach’s estimate, only one or two will make it to the minor leagues.

Ssireum will never fully die in South Korea. It’s only a question of what form it will take: Will ssireum get watered down and only exist as a game Korean children play at cultural festivals, or will it retreat further into its fringe status as a sport built around intensive training and tradition?

Like with every dying tradition, there are those who are practical, and there are the purists. With one eye on Uiseong and another on the rest of the country, we will see with time which group wins out in South Korea.

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