Spiker Kim may quit S. Korea team over contract dispute

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

South Korean volleyball superstar Kim Yeon-koung is threatening to retire from the national team unless she is released from a contract by her former club team Heungkuk Life Insurance.

The 25-year-old Kim was the Most Valuable Player at the London Olympics and is considered one of the top players in the world. She has been an integral part of the South Korean team for several years. The root of the ongoing dispute lies in the contract language that ties her to Heungkuk for six years.

The 192-cm outside hitter played for the Seoul-based team for four years before joining the JT Marvelous in Osaka in 2009 for two seasons. After two campaigns in Kansai, Kim signed with Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce.

Kim’s contention is that her two years in Japan were actually on a transfer basis and as a result she should be considered to have fulfilled her obligation to Heungkuk. The South Korean club disagrees and was backed up by the world governing body for the sport (FIVB) in a ruling last September.

So Kim, who is seeking an International Transfer Certificate, is effectively blocked from playing anywhere until she is released by Heungkuk. The 2011 V-League Most Valuable Player is taking a stand over the row and says she wants the matter resolved by July 25.

At a July 15 news conference in Seoul, where she was accompanied by both her attorney and agent, Kim was adamant that she would quit the national squad if an amicable resolution was not reached.

“Problems with Heungkuk Pink Spiders make me very sad,” she was quoted as saying at the Korea Press Center. “If this problem can’t be resolved as soon as possible, I will retire from the national team.”

On July 1 Heungkuk asked the Korean Volleyball Association to register her as a “voluntarily withdrawn player.” The club is standing firm and made its view clear in a news release of its own the same day.

“For the past year, the team worked for an amicable solution of the matter, but Kim did not back down from her original stance,” the Pink Spiders said. “The team has provided unprecedented support and convenience (for Kim), and yet she has insisted on saying things that just aren’t true.”

Heungkuk claims it is willing to consider releasing Kim, but only if she “upholds the regulations and sincerely apologizes to the team.”

As the most decorated women’s player in South Korean history, Kim has considerable power and she knows it. If she were to quit the national team the impact would be devastating for a side that finished fourth at the London Olympics after losing to Japan in match for the bronze medal.

The result in London was South Korea’s best showing in the Olympics since taking the bronze at the Montreal Games in 1976.

So dominant a force in the sport is Kim that one analyst commented recently that the match against Japan in London “wasn’t Japan vs. South Korea, it was Japan vs. Kim Yeon-koung.”

When South Korea played Japan in the London Olympic qualifying tournament in Tokyo back in May of 2012, Kim, who is known for both her soaring spikes and model-like looks, scored a match-high 34 points in a four-set victory for her team.

It was the kind of dominating performance that left all in attendance that evening in amazement. Simply put, it confirmed that Kim may be the finest female athlete in the world in any sport.

The dispute between Kim and Heungkuk was originally mediated by the Korean Volleyball Association, but Kim and her representatives contend that the arbitration process was unfair. They are threatening to take the issue to the Court of Arbitration for Sport or the South Korean legal system.

Kim is one of the most popular female athletes in her country, and her fans voiced their displeasure over her treatment earlier this week by protesting outside the KVA offices in Seoul for several days.

The stakes are even higher with the 2014 World Championship qualifying tournament set to be held in Komaki, Aichi Prefecture, in early September, followed by the Asian championships in Thailand later the same month.

Kim’s absence at either event would be devastating for South Korea. It will be interesting to see who blinks first in this game of brinkmanship, but the reality is that the national team needs Kim a lot more than she needs them.