Olympian’s Avalanche of ‘Families’

Times Staff Writer

For someone who started out in an orphanage, U.S. Olympic skier Toby Dawson has a dizzying number of “parents” to contend with.

The 27-year-old adoptee had said during the Winter Games in Italy that he was interested in finding his South Korean biological parents, whom he has not seen since he was 2 years old. Since then, more than a dozen families who believe they might be the ones have emerged from the woodwork.

There is the retired army sergeant who says he abandoned his second son after his wife had a nervous breakdown. There is the father who claims his son was lost at a crowded market in Busan. And there’s the woman who put her son up for adoption rather than face the ignominy of raising a child out of wedlock.


After Dawson won a bronze medal for men’s mogul skiing in February, hundreds of people e-mailed him, claiming to have information about his birth.

Others have contacted Holt International Children’s Services Inc., the agency that handled his and most other South Korean adoptions. Half a dozen others contacted the Korean media suggesting they might be his parents.

“Toby has really been overwhelmed by the response. It is all very confusing,” said Deborah Dawson, the former ski instructor from Vail, Colo., who with her then-husband, Mike, adopted him in 1982 from a South Korean orphanage.

The uproar is not confined to the Dawson family. The publicity surrounding the case has caused great consternation for many Koreans who may, or may not, be related.

More than 2,000 Korean children are sent abroad each year to be adopted, most of them born to unmarried mothers or the products of broken marriages. The practice is a matter of deep embarrassment for families in a conservative Confucian society where people are taught that blood ties matter above all.

Even though DNA tests have not been done in the Dawson case, the mere possibility of a relationship has opened up a thicket of secrets for at least one family.

A 52-year-old Busan bus driver, Kim Jae-su, suspects that Dawson might be his eldest son, Kim Bong-seok. The family says that at age 2, he became separated from his mother at a sprawling outdoor market in Busan in 1981.

Records from Dawson’s adoption show that he was found in front of a police station in Busan in September of that year and transferred to an orphanage. Officials listed his birthday as Nov. 30, 1978, guessing his age based on his size, and named him Kim Soo-chul. (Kim Bong-seok’s date of birth was registered as March 17, 1979). He was adopted from the orphanage in March 1982 by the Dawsons.

Kim Jae-su says he and his wife spent two years looking for their child. They went on to have another son and eventually divorced. Both remarried, but did not disclose to their new families all the details of their past -- including about the boy lost a quarter of a century ago.

“It was a terrible thing to lose a child. I couldn’t sleep.... I depended on drinking to get by,” Kim said.

“We couldn’t go on with life as it was before.”

As soon as he saw a photo of Dawson in the newspaper, Kim thought he recognized his long-lost son. Despite the tongue ring and mutton-chop sideburns that give Dawson a distinct look, there is indeed a strong resemblance in the chubby cheeks and the quizzical eyebrows.

“I was sure immediately it was him. He is an exact replica of me and my younger son,” Kim said.

“My friends, too, started calling, saying, ‘Hey, this guy Toby Dawson looks like a photocopy of you,’ ” said Kim Hyun-chol, Kim Jae-su’s 22-year-old son.

A computer student who is doing his mandatory military service, Kim Hyun-chol said that until the Dawson matter came up, he knew nothing of an elder brother lost at a market. He also believed that the woman who raised him, his father’s new wife, was his mother -- not as it turns out, his stepmother.

“I was shocked. It all happened very quickly,” Kim said.

Meanwhile, a woman who said she was Kim Jae-su’s first wife told the Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo that she did not wish to be found by Dawson, even if it turned out he was her biological son.

“I would lose the family I have now if people found out,” she was quoted as saying.

Members of the Kim family have said they would be happy to take a DNA test, but only if Dawson requests it.

“If he wants it, of course I will do it. But I don’t want to be seen as looking for something just because he is famous,” Kim said.

Dawson’s Chicago-based manager, Jim Spinello, said that Korean and Japanese television stations had offered large sums of money to televise a reunion between the Olympian and his biological parents. He said Dawson didn’t want to profit from the situation but was thinking about setting up a foundation so any proceeds could be put to good use.

“Even though he is 27 years old, this is still a very delicate matter for Toby. We are trying to figure out the right way to do it,” Spinello said.

Dawson’s celebrity after the Olympics has turned what would ordinarily be a most private matter into a public spectacle. But the underlying facts of his case are not unusual.

Since 1950, more than 100,000 South Korean children have been adopted by Americans. They make up the largest population of foreign adoptees in the U.S., dwarfing the numbers from China and Russia. Each year, many return to Korea in search of information about their parentage.

The Holt agency, which has set up a division to deal with the questions of adult adoptees, said that last year 670 people came looking for their parents and that 123 were able to contact them.

“We do what we can to help them. We arrange free DNA testing,” said Lee Chang-won, a spokesman for the agency. “We have never had, though, a case like Dawson’s, with so much publicity. It is usually a private and quiet matter.”

During the Turin Games, Dawson had posted 12 childhood photos on the NBC Olympic website, including one taken at the orphanage in Busan, in hopes of discovering information about his past. But the glut of prospective parents that emerged appears to have unnerved him. He canceled a trip in February to South Korea to participate in an International Ski Federation World Cup event, a visit that would have been his third trip here. He has not said when he might come again.

Toby had been reluctant to seek information about his roots, Deborah Dawson said. He used to say, “Why do I have to bother? I have two parents who love me.”

But as he grew older, he became more curious and also more wary of the possible pitfalls.

His younger brother, K.C. Dawson, also adopted from South Korea, traveled here as a teenager and met his biological father. But the reunion proved to be difficult.

The man demanded that K.C. show the filial respect due fathers in Korean culture and complained that the boy had been spoiled by life in the United States. He claimed that K.C. had been sick as a baby and had been put up for adoption by the hospital without the family’s permission -- a story that nobody in the Dawson family believed, Deborah Dawson said.

“There were a lot of secrets and lies, and K.C. didn’t want to see him again,” she recalled. “The relationship has been severed.”