“Only grandpas watched this good thing…”
“K-ssireum is following in K-pop’s footsteps.”
“The next (big) Korean cultural content after BTS is Sand Pit Boys!”
These comments are about a video clip on YouTube of the final match of a national ssireum (traditional wrestling) tournament held in August 2018 in Gimcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. The video garnered over 2.3 million views as of Dec. 2.
Viewers said ssireum is seeing a resurgence and a new recognition after being considered a sport popular only among the older generation. The video has helped ssireum, long considered unpopular, attract young fans through social networking services.
Once one of the nation’s most popular sports in the 1980s and 90s, this traditional form of wrestling waned in popularity over complaints of lacking excitement because competitors often got heavier to use strength and weight against their opponents. Such heavier wrestlers could not pull off techniques that require quick reactions.
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The shift from a focus on a variety of techniques used throughout the sport’s history to an emphasis on strength thus changed the game and halved interest in it, thus further distancing ssireum from the public eye.
To restore the sport’s popularity, the Korea Ssireum Association (KSA) in 2011 introduced weight limits and the heaviest weight class of 160 kg; the latter was lowered in 2018 to 140 kg. After the limits were introduced, a rise was seen in the number of competitors in the weight classes of Taebak (80 kg) and Geumgang (90 kg), thus creating more opportunities to showcase again the variety of ssireum techniques.
“We urgently need a ssireum TV show.”
This comment written by a viewer turned into reality on Nov. 30 last year after KBS aired “Joy of Ssireum.” Right after the broadcast, the show’s title became the most searched buzzword on Korean portal sites.
KSA Secretary-General Lee Seung-sam on Dec. 24 told Korea.net over the phone, “Ssireum wrestlers have received (inquiries) from a variety of entertainment shows and ssireum venues have attracted many young fans,” adding, “We can actually feel the change in ssireum’s popularity.”
He also expressed his ambition to globalize ssireum, saying, “We have plans to further reduce weight limits and set new weight classes to allow participation by foreign ssireum wrestlers.”
What is ssireum? This is a form of traditional Korean wrestling in which a wrestler grabs the satba (a fabric belt wrapped around the waist and one thigh) and tries to knock or flip over the opponent by using 55 techniques. Foreigners often confuse ssireum and Japanese sumo since both use a sand ring but sumo is different in that its goal is to force the opponent out of the ring. Records of ssireum are found in various relics, documents and drawings from the era of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (57 B.C.–A.D. 668) and the sport in 2018 was the first joint item submitted by both Koreas to be included on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The four weight classes in professional ssireum are named after Korean mountains: Halla (140 kg), Baekdu (105 kg), Geumgang (90 kg) and Taebaek (80 kg).