|The girls are jogging around Douglas Park on their last training day. Like these girls, all girls around the world should be able to benefit from the positive physical, mental and social effects of being part of an athletic community. Photo by Son Young-chai
Then and Now: the rise and fall of sports at Ewha
Such acknowledgement of the positive effects and importance of women’s sports participation are not without precedent at Ewha. In fact, Ewha has the honor of being the first institution in Korea to include physical education into its curriculum.
The history of sports education at Ewha date backs to 1892 when the first foreign missionaries introduced basic gymnastics to Ewha students. Their deeply imbedded belief that physical and mental fitness were innately bound was fundamental to the development of physical education at Ewha. In a time where a virtuous woman was to stay seated, Ewha students played a variety of sports in spite of the belittlement, from gymnastics to basketball, baseball, and more.
In fact, for most of the 20th century, the school curriculum assigned mandatory Liberal Arts physical education courses that students had to take during their undergraduate years. In the 30s, students had to learn different sports throughout all four years of their undergraduate curriculum. Ewha students had an obligation to learn various sports from swimming, cycling, softball, basketball and more. When we came into the 80s, these regulations were largely moderated, and the only remaining mandatory sport was swimming.
“There was a saying then, ‘Ewha students won’t ever drown to death,’” said Professor Lee Kyung-ock of the department of Kinesiology and Sports Studies, also the President of the Community Sports Learning Center.
However, even this one mandatory sport was cut from the curriculum in the 90s when the Ministry of Education took lead in the cut of Liberal Arts physical education.
Nearly three decades later, in 2017, the school is seeking to cut Liberal Arts physical education down to three sports. They will be replacing the current single credit practical sports classes to three credit courses where students will sit in class and learn the theoretical aspects of the sport.
The school’s perspective, as told by professors at Ewha, is that nowadays students can learn a variety of sports outside of school grounds, in private institutions. However, the professors argued of the incomparable difference in content and quality between learning a sport at an educational institution rather than a corporate institution.
On this issue, Professor Lee stressed that the school had to change it’s current curriculum. According to Lee, Ewha students mandatorily engage in sports three time a week.
“I say three times a week, for three credits,” she said. “People who have never exercised regularly to that amount don’t understand the physical and mental empowerment sports can deliver. If changing the curriculum is what it takes to have students be able to experience and benefit from sports throughout their adult life, then that’s what we should provide.”
Professor Lee’s passion for introducing students to sports was not without reason. She believed that the students here have brilliant aspirations. But in many cases, they haven’t prepared their stamina for the long journey ahead. Professor Lee repeated the common complaints of Korean students nowadays - aching backs and constant minor flu. She stressed that for students to be able to strive for their ambitions, mental and physical stamina, fitness was an crucial factor.
“I want the students here to be able to exercise, go to class, and study hard,” she said. “Maybe they will lose some sleep throughout the week from late night studying, but I want them to be able to attend class the next day, fresh, as good as new, ready to tackle what’s to come.”
For the past three decades, sports education in Ewha has progressively decreased. Some question the necessity of sports in higher education. But to build a stronger society, we must bring all our resources to the table, both men and women. We need to create a playing field where gender is a characteristic, not a barrier nor definition. And to do that, at Ewha as an institution that pioneered women’s sports in Korea, we must bring back what the Ministry of Education, our public schools, our society has failed to provide for the girls and women of this generation. We must start the movement that introduces sports into the lives of every women, every girl in this country.