Five-Ring Circus

A Korean Golfer’s Father Dropped a Suitcase on One of Her Rivals. Then Things Got Weird.

In Gee Chun (left) and Ha Na Jang of South Korea walk together during the first round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship on June 9, in Sammamish, Washington.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images for KPMG

The craziest story of the Olympics begins on an escalator in Singapore. Back in March, just before the start of the HSBC Champions tournament, South Korean golfer Ha-Na Jang and her suitcase-toting father found themselves riding down an escalator at Changi Airport right behind another South Korean golfer, In Gee Chun. According to Reuters, “Korean media reported Jang’s father had lost hold of the 7 kilogram carry-on bag as he watched his daughter tie a shoelace.” Chun, who was 21 at the time, got pounded in the back by the rogue luggage. She “suffered an injury to the muscles surrounding her tail bone,” Reuters wrote, and was forced to withdraw from the tournament in Singapore.

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Jang—daughter of the suitcase dropper—ended up winning the HSBC Champions event. When she knocked home her final putt, the then–23-year-old Jang did a celebratory dance modeled after Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”

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The loose shoelace, and the suitcase, and the injured tail bone, and the Beyoncé dance instigated a monthslong saga in South Korea, with whispers of possibly intentional sabotage—that this was the golf version of the paid hit on Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics.

There was no tougher Olympic lineup to crack than the South Korean women’s golf team. While 60 of the world’s best female golfers will tee off at Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Golf Course when the tournament begins on Wednesday, not all of the top-ranked women were invited to Rio. According to International Golf Federation rules, each country is limited to just four players in the Olympic field. Considering that 25 of the top 60 and seven of the top 13 golfers in the most-recent world rankings are from South Korea, that means a good percentage of the planet’s elite players will be staying home.

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Two of those seven players are Ha-Na Jang and In Gee Chun. Before Jang’s father hit Chun with the suitcase, Jang was outside the Olympic cut line and Chun looked like a good bet to make the team. After the carry-on went flying and the “Single Ladies”–dancing Jang won the HSBC Champions tournament, the suitcase-dropper’s daughter rose from the No. 6 spot among Korean golfers to No. 2 (in position for the Olympic team). Chun, meanwhile, fell from No. 3 to the fifth position (provisionally off the roster).

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Women’s golf has been a major draw in South Korea ever since Se-ri Pak ascended to stardom in the late 1990s. Chun, who won the U.S. Women’s Open in 2015, is particularly popular. Members of her fan club, the Flying Dumbos, were far from pleased with the out-of-control-carry-on-bag-followed-by-Beyoncé-dance situation. One golfer’s father had dropped a heavy piece of luggage on his daughter’s rival. Could that possibly be a coincidence?

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All available evidence seems to suggest it was a coincidence. Nevertheless, there was speculation in the South Korean media that the suitcase drop had been a purposeful act. That speculation was fueled in part by Chun’s father. In an article published in Korea’s Segye Times that doesn’t appear to have made its way to the English-language media, the father of the injured party said unnamed people had urged him to acquire security camera footage from the airport and to bring it to the police. He explained he was not yet prepared to do that. “For the sake of my daughter’s future, I will wait it out,” he said.

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Chun and her father never did go to the police. In the days after the luggage got loose, all interested parties—Chun and Jang and both of their fathers and the golfers’ fans and the Korean press—seemed most concerned about who had apologized to whom, how fulsome those apologies had been, and whether various parties should be offended about said apologies.

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On March 7, the day after she won the tournament in Singapore, Jang told reporters, “I’m really sorry for what happened to Chun.” Chun, however, wrote the following on her website, according to Reuters:

Neither myself nor my parents have received the apology that [Jang and her father] claim to have made. But their explanation is enough to dissolve any hard feelings. They must have done that because they thought they did something wrong. I’m OK, I’m already over it.

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Chun’s father added, “Regardless of how the accident came about, there has been no proper apology from Jang’s side even though a player was left unable to compete in a tournament.”

These accusations of insufficient apologizing and excessive celebratory dancing took an immediate toll on Jang. The Golf Channel’s Randall Mell reported on March 15 that she broke down crying at the JTBC Founders Cup tournament in Phoenix as she explained she hadn’t meant to offend anyone with her fabulous celebration on the 18th green in Singapore:

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Jang said she only did the Beyoncé dance to live up to a promise she made to Singapore media who asked before the event started if she had something special planned if she won. Jang said she made the promise unaware how serious the Chun incident had become. …

Jang did say the backlash over her celebration hurt her.

“Now every day crying in my room, last night, last week,” Jang said before enlisting a translator to help convey her concerns. “A lot happening in Korea, big issue.”

And here, again courtesy of Golf Channel’s Mell, is yet another statement from Chun. This is an extremely rich text, a piece of writing that somehow manages to absolve Jang and her father of blame while also blaming them for everything.

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Ha Na Jang and her father are two of the players and players’ fathers who have the most respect from a lot of people in golf, and who are loved by them. Regardless of the shortcomings in delivering apologies, and consolations directly to me and my family, I still believe the excessive speculations and the provoked criticism from current issues should not result in their mental wound and stresses.

I hope to meet them soon and would like to have an opportunity to share with them my thought on how my family and I were hurt. At the same time, I would like to show my sympathy and console their heart and soul sincerely if I could. Many fans of Ha Na Jang’s must have felt greatly hurt and low. I would also like to express my sincere consolation wholeheartedly to them, and I would like to ask them to continue to support Ha Na Jang for her continued top performance at the tournaments to come. I will do my best to rebuild the relationship with her and her family in a very positive direction and meet the expectations from everyone who loves golf.

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Chun was back playing again a few weeks after the suitcase fell on her back—at the end of March, she finished tied for second at the ANA Inspiration in California, starting her rise back up the rankings. Jang, who did not have a suitcase fall on her back, succumbed to health problems of her own. On April 21, a month and a half after she did the “Single Ladies” dance in Singapore, Jang withdrew from the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic; according to her agency, she “had been suffering from blurred vision, dizziness, and vomiting, and had also experienced trouble sleeping.” A month later, Fox Sports Asia reported that Jang was taking a break from golf due to insomnia and anemia induced by emotional distress from the luggage incident.

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In mid-April, Jang was the fourth-highest-ranked Korean women in the world, still in position to make the Olympic team. As she missed more tournaments, her ranking dropped. Though she did eventually get back to playing, finishing tied for 21st at the U.S. Women’s Open in July, Jang had lost too much ground. By July 11, the date when the spots in the Olympic tournament were decided, Ha-Na Jang had fallen to the No. 5 spot among South Korean players. There will be no Beyoncé dance in Rio de Janeiro.

Which Koreans did make the Olympic team? Inbee Park is the Korean No. 1, and she’s joined on the roster by Sei Young Kim and Amy Yang. The fourth member of Rio’s strongest golfing contingent is In Gee Chun, the woman who got a suitcase dropped on her by a competitor’s father. Chun will begin her first round at the Olympics at 6:52 a.m. ET in Wednesday. That’s 7:52 p.m. in Seoul—primetime. The Flying Dumbos will be watching.

Read more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.

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