Games-Korean gamers on cusp of gold, and avoiding military service

By Martin Quin Pollard

HANGZHOU, China (Reuters) – Gaming superstar ‘Faker’ is one of a large number of male South Korean athletes at the Hangzhou Asian Games who, if they win gold, will enjoy the added bonus of being able to skip what is normally mandatory military service.

All able-bodied South Korean men aged between 18 and 28 must serve in the military for around 1.5 to 2 years as part of the country’s efforts to guard against North Korea.

Tens of thousands of young South Koreans are drafted each year to perform their duty.

But athletes and artists can get exemptions if they are seen to have promoted national prestige, for example by winning certain international or national awards, an Olympic medal or a gold medal at the Asian Games.

Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min secured the exemption after his Korean team won gold at the last Games in Jakarta in 2018. But not everyone has managed it.

Tennis player Kwon Soon-woo, 25, who made headlines this week for smashing his racquet in frustration in a singles match, lost his last chance of an exemption courtesy of these Games on Thursday when he and his men’s doubles partner were beaten by an Indian pair in the semi-finals.

K-pop star Suga, songwriter and rapper for the boy band supergroup BTS, began the enlistment process for mandatory military service last month, making him the third BTS member to go off to perform the military duty.

The military service law was amended several years ago to allow selected K-pop megastars to defer their service to aged 30, but not to avoid it entirely, with a large section of the population against giving stars like BTS special treatment.


Though only a reserve on Thursday, Faker, whose real name is Lee Sang-hyeok, and his team progressed to the “League of Legends” multiplayer battle game final on Thursday after beating China 2-0 in front of packed house at the city’s state-of-the-art Esports venue.

Even if he also does not feature in the final, given that he played in a previous round, Faker should be eligible to collect a gold, and a leave pass, if they win in the final on Friday.

Fans and athletes alike noted that the leave-pass policy, though sometimes controversial in Korea, can provide extra motivation.

“Not just for swimmers but as an athlete, I think exemption from military service removes a hindrance to an athlete’s life, allowing him to have a longer career,” said Baek In-chul, who won his first Asian Games gold in the 50m butterfly in a Games record time.

Shortly after, his team mate Kim Woomin, 22, won his second gold in Hangzhou and second in total, in the 800m freestyle, also in a Games record time.

“If I’m always focused on the process and get good times and standings when it’s time to compete, the military exemption will follow from that so I just focused on the race without thinking much about it,” Kim said.

The men’s basketball team, one of the top-ranked sides in the competition, stand a chance of repeating their gold from the 2014 Incheon Games, after their bronze in Jakarta in 2018.

“Since our country has its own military service system, there are benefits for athletes in big international competitions like this,” said head coach Choo Il Seung, after his side beat Qatar 76-64 in a preliminary round match, despite the local crowd strongly favouring Qatar.

“We have players (in the current squad) who have been exempt from military service by winning gold medals in past editions of the games, but… we also several players who have not yet avoided military service.

“So from an athlete’s point of view, I think there could be a lot of good motivation for these games.”

But for some this would come too late.

“I’m actually in the military with one month until I’m discharged so it is not something I am particularly concerned about,” said point guard Heo Hoon, 28.

“But of course, because a gold medal gives one an exemption, and we have many who haven’t done their service yet… we should perform at our best and get the gold.”

(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard; Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Ian Ransom and the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Toby Davis)