SEOUL: South Korea's "Garlic Girls" curling team were exploited by their coaches who stole tens of thousands of dollars of prize money from the Olympic medal-winners, the sports ministry said Thursday.
The curlers, who come from a town famous for garlic farming, were rank outsiders at South Korea's Pyeongchang Games last year, but became a media sensation as they swept their way to Olympic silver.
But last November they publicly accused their coaches of verbal abuse and intrusive control and claimed they had not received their prize money from previous competitions, prompting public outrage and a probe by the sports ministry.
The team claimed the coaches were running Korean curling like a family fiefdom: the husband of their head coach, Kim Min-jung, is a former national men's team coach, while her father Kim Kyung-doo is a former vice president of the Korean Curling Federation (KCF).
Following a five-week investigation, the sports ministry said Thursday that the allegations made by the curlers were "mostly true".
"It was confirmed that there was excessive control over privacy by the coaches... who strongly berated the athletes if they spoke with their previous coaches or athletes from other teams," the ministry said, adding that the coaches censored gifts and fan letters.
The curlers were not paid properly as the coaches had "mismanaged" around 94 million won (US$83,500) of the team's income, it said.
They also embezzled around 30 million won, according to the ministry.
The probe also found that the coaches had evaded taxes and hired unqualified family members to work on the national team.
The ministry said the case will be taken to the police.
The curlers are also known as "Team Kim" for their shared surname, and use food-based nicknames for ease of identification: the captain is Annie - a brand of yogurt - while Kim Yeong-mi is Pancake, Kim Kyeong-ae is Steak, Kim Seon-yeong is Sunny - as in "sunny side up" - and Kim Cho-hee is Chocho, a type of cookie.
The team's giant-killing feats at the Olympics, despite limited funding, boosted the popularity of their little-known sport in South Korea.
But despite their Olympic silver they failed to win the national trials in August, ruling them out of international competition and sending them plummeting down the world rankings as a result.