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South Korea: Condoms prompt anger at Winter Youth Olympics

Over 1,800 athletes from different parts of the world are taking part in the Games

Over 1,800 athletes from different parts of the world are taking part in the Games

Organizers of the 2024 Gangwon Winter Youth Olympics have come under pressure from a South Korean parents association following reports they had provided condoms to the participants, who are aged between 13 and 18. Over 1,800 young athletes are taking part in the Games.

In a statement issued on January 23, six days after the official opening ceremony in the South Korean province of Gangwon, the National Federation of Parents' Organizations demanded that no more condoms should be handed out and that the organizing committee issue an official apology.

A failure to do so, it added, would mean that the Youth Olympics should be "abolished."

The local organizing committee in Gangwon has declined to comment on the issue. However, the International Olympic Committee defended the action, telling DW that "[d]istribution of condoms in the Youth Olympic Villages is part of the health education program that is available to athletes during their stay."

Sympathy from the public

Local media in South Korea seem to have largely ignored the objections of the parents' group. But analysts noted that the complaints illustrated the attitudes of many South Korean parents and their reluctance to discuss issues related to sexuality with their children.

Park Jung-won, a professor of international Law at Dankook University, said there is still a deep vein of conservatism that runs through the modern and wealthy Asian nation.

"It seems to me that the general public at least somewhat understands the outrage of this parents' group over the Olympic organizers distributing free condoms," he said. "This is because South Korean society still holds conservative views towards parents' authority over their teenagers, while South Korean law also strongly supports parental rights over minors.

"I think a significant number of citizens at least emotionally sympathize with the strong anger expressed by these conservative groups," he added.

South Korea's age of consent among highest in the world

Organizers confirmed on January 23 that 2,500 condoms had been made available for free at the athletes' village, at Gangneung-Wonju National University, with an additional 500 condoms sent to athletes' accommodation at the Jeongseon High1 resort, The Korea Herald reported.

The parents' association issued its response the same day, demanding an apology for making contraceptives available to children and minors.

"Mothers do not want their children to be tempted to have sex in order to enjoy a moment of pleasure," they said.

The age of consent in South Korea is 20, one of the highest in the world.

'An act that undermines the spirit of the Olympics'

The group warned that condoms don't prevent all sexually transmitted infections.

"Distributing condoms at the Youth Olympics, which should be a platform for fostering healthy bodies and sound minds, is an act that undermines the spirit of the Olympics," they said in a statement.

"Does the mission of the Olympic spirit, which is to build a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport, mean we should also value sexual curiosity or instinctive behavior?" the press release asked.

"If the reason behind providing condoms to young athletes is [because of their] curiosity, does that mean that is acceptable to encourage teenagers to carry out robbery if they are inquisitive about it?" it added.

Taboos of Confucian society

Free condoms were first provided to athletes at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. Interestingly, the 1988 Summer Olympics was held in the South Korean capital, Seoul. At the time, the organizers said the initiative showed the International Olympic Committee's commitment to safe sex and sexual health.

The practice has been continued at every Olympics since, including at the 2018 Buenos Aires Summer Youth Olympics and the Lausanne Winter Youth Olympics in 2020. Officials said that 450,000 condoms were provided at the 2016 Rio Olympics, although that was partly motivated by a measure against the spread of the Zika virus in South America.

Lim Eun-jung, an associate professor of international studies at Kongju National University, also said South Korea is still "very Confucianist-oriented." Most interpretations of Confucianist philosophy discourage discussions of sex, praise chastity, especially among women and limit sexual practices to marriage.

"But I do not see this issue as attracting a lot of attention from the public, while the television news and the papers have not [reported] this issue in depth," she added.

With only a day left before the closing ceremony on Wednesday, the image of the Youth Games appears mostly unharmed by the condom row. According to Dangkook University's Park, the actual effect of the dispute could be to highlight the safe-sex message in a nation where the issue is often hushed up.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic