By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - Former team mates of a South Korean triathlete found dead last month after alleging she had been abused by her coaching staff said on Monday athletes endured a living "hell" and were habitually beaten and verbally abused.
Choi Suk-hyeon, a member of the national triathlon team, died at her team dorm after leaving a message to her mother asking her to "reveal the sins" of her abusers. She was 22.
Choi did not reveal names in the message, which was released by a lawmaker last week, but her family and team mates said she had suffered years of physical and verbal abuse from her coach, physiotherapist and captain of her Gyeongju City team.
Her coach and captain denied any wrongdoing at a parliamentary hearing on Monday.
A sports ministry official told the hearing that the physiotherapist was a friend of the coach and was working with the team despite not having a license.
He is no longer with the team and Reuters was unable to contact him.
One of Choi's former team mates, who did not give her name and wore a mask to conceal her identity, told a news conference before the hearing that the team was "a kingdom built only for the coach and certain members".
"The coach and the captain habitually beat and verbally abused Suk-hyeon and us," she added.
In one instance, the coach forced them to eat 200,000 won ($167.00) worth of bread and then throw it all back up as a penalty for drinking a cup of cola and gaining weight, she said.
Another team mate described life in the athletes dorm as the "abyss of hell" but said she believed this was the world athletes had to live in.
The lawmaker who arranged the news conference said it took courage from the athletes to come forward as they were afraid of reprisals.
Choi's death sparked a nationwide uproar, especially after she was found to have filed complaints with the police, national sports bodies and a human rights watchdog.
The head of the national triathlon association apologised at the parliamentary hearing for "only believing the coach".
South Korea's elite sports community is notorious for its "win-at-all-costs" culture, with its brutal training regimes and a strong hierarchical relationship between coaches and older and younger athletes.
Last year, several female athletes accused their male coaches of sexual and verbal abuse amid the #MeToo movement, including two-time Olympic champion short track speed skater Shim Suk-hee, who said she was repeatedly raped by her coach.
The sports ministry and Korean Sport and Olympic Committee pledged a thorough investigation on Monday.
($1 = 1,197.6200 won)
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)