By Karl Schutz
UISEONG, South Korea — Ssireum, a style of Korean wrestling some say is as old as Korea itself, has been seeing a slow and silent death in South Korea in recent decades.
The sport, which feature two plus-sized competitors wrestling 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 South Korea professional ssireum is almost nonexistent and the sport is struggling to draw new recruits and fans alike.
But 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 as well as 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. Read more