Ssireum (씨름), a centuries old sport, is Korea’s unique brand of traditional wrestling. Several local and annual tournaments are held each year, but the two most popular are held during Korea’s most important holidays: Chuseok (추석), the fall harvest festival which happens in September or October, and Seollal (설날), the lunar new year celebration which happens in January or February.
My first time watching a live match was at the 2009 Chuseok Ssireum Wrestling Championship held in Jinju. In the article where I wrote about the Chuseok Championship, I talked about the rules and weight classes, so I’ll refer you to that article if you want to know that information. In this article, I’ll limit myself to my experiences at the 2010 Seollal Ssireum Wrestling Tournament held in Seoul.
As with the Chuseok Championship, attendance at the Seollal Championship was mediocre on the first two days of the four day event. Day one and day two are for the lightest weight classes, and day three and four are reserved for the big boys. So naturally people want to come and see the heavy weights. Also, each day’s tournament is televised from 2pm-4pm, so people can enjoy them from home. Preliminaries are held from 10am-12pm on the day preceding each respective weight class’ finals and are not televised.
I want to talk about the Baekdu (백두) 105+kg weight class because it was simply awesome to watch. I was hoping for a rematch between the two guys I saw in the final during the Chuseok Championship, however, the Chuseok Champion was eliminated in the first round. The second place guy in the Chuseok Championship, Lee Tae-hyeon (이태현), did, on the other hand, make it to the finals again at the Seollal Championship.
In the end, Tae-hyeon won the dramatic match 3-0 to become the Seollal champion. But why was it dramatic? It became dramatic after Tae-hyeon threw his opponent to the sand for the second time to go up 2 rounds to 0. The opponent didn’t stand up right away. It appeared that the opponent was simply frustrated by the quick first and second round losses, but Tae-hyeon, expressing concern as he stood over his opponent, seemed to realize the injury was serious.
There is a short rest period between each round, but since the opponent didn’t stand up right away the referee, coach, and trainer all came over to talk about the seriousness of the injury. I thought that the tournament was going to end because of the injury, but the injured competitor rose to his feet and continued.
Before the start of the third round, Tae-hyeon called for a towel. He then took the towel and wiped the sand off of his opponent’s back in a show of respect. At that moment, the crowd recognized the significance of this warm-hearted act and the arena was full of applause.
A few short moments later and Tae-hyeon was the Seollal Ssireum Wrestling Champion. The defeated opponent slowly walked to his side of the ring, carefully unwrapped the support band around his knee, and stared at his knee in what must have been utter disappointment.
Tae-hyeon was awarded a trophy of a bull, a champion’s robe, 20,000,000 won (about $18,000), and carried around the arena on the shoulders of six men.
Sitting at my desk and looking back, the Seollal Ssireum Wrestling Championship is a worthwhile event to check out. If you must choose only one day’s matches to watch, it might as well be the heavy weights. And whether you watch it in person or live on tv, it is a great opportunity to experience a bit of Korean traditional culture.