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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s Olympic chief has defended a decision to send hundreds of athletes to a military camp next week as part of preparations for the 2024 Games in Paris, citing a need to instill mental toughness in competitors.

About 400 athletes, including women, will arrive at a marine boot camp in the southeastern port city of Pohang on Monday for a three-day training aimed at building resilience and teamwork, the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee said.

The program, pushed by the committee’s president, Lee Kee-Heung, has faced criticism from politicians and media who described the training camp as outdated and showing an unhealthy obsession with medals.

Officials at the committee have played down concerns about the potential for injuries, saying the athletes will not be forced into the harsher types of military training. Morning jogs, rubber-boat riding and events aimed at building camaraderie will be on the program. Sports officials are still finalizing details of the camp with the Korea Marine Corps., committee official Yun Kyoung-ho said Thursday.

During a meeting with domestic media, Lee said he hopes that next week’s training could help inspire a “rebound” for the country’s Olympic athletes who are stuck in a “real crisis situation.” He was referring to what was widely seen as the country’s underwhelming medal tallies in this year’s Asian Games and at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

If their performances don’t improve, South Korea may win just five or six gold medals at the Paris Games, Lee said, describing that tally as the “worst-case scenario” for the country.

The Associated Press was not present at the meeting, which was closed to foreign media, but confirmed Lee’s comments later through the sports committee.

Lee first floated the idea about the military training camp following the Asian Games in October, when South Korea finished third in the gold medal count to host China and Japan. The six gold medals South Korean athletes won during the Tokyo Olympics were the fewest for the country since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

South Korea has long linked sports with national pride, a legacy that goes back to the successive dictatorships that ruled the country from the 1960s to mid-80s, when military leaders associated Asian Games and Olympic Games achievements with regime loyalty and prestige.

Since the 1970s, male athletes who win gold medals at Asian Games or any medal at the Olympics have been exempted from 18-21 months of military service that most South Korean men must perform in the face of North Korean military threats. Such rare privileges aren’t extended to even the biggest of pop stars, including BTS, whose seven singers as of this week have all entered their military service commitments and hope to reunite as a group in 2025.


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