Editor’s Note: This review includes spoilers for “Physical: 100.”
Netflix’s newest South Korean reality TV series “Physical: 100,” produced by MBC, invites one hundred of South Korea’s top athletes to participate in a competition for a cash prize of 300 million won ($229,860) and the title of the perfect physique. While the show intends to highlight physical human extremism and sportsmanship among contestants, the producers overshadow the competition with elements of fear and cruelty that must have been deeply uncomfortable for the athletes, putting the morals of the producers into question.
“Physical: 100” creates a space for athletes to compete in less conventional ways. For example, a professional dancer competed with a farmer in what was essentially a wrestling match. The games were not as technical as official sporting events, which made them easier for the untrained eye to appreciate. Even though these matches were not highly technical, the audience still saw gold medal Olympians pushed to the brink of their abilities and contestants accomplishing amazing feats.
The overall theme of the show drew from ancient Greek and Roman mythology for game design and aesthetic inspiration. Statues were cast of each competitor’s torso to mimic ancient sculptures that celebrated ideal human physique. This choice emphasized valor and nobility by associating the winners with Roman epic heroes, such as in the famous sculptures Farnese Hercules by Glykon and Polykleito’s Doryphoros or “spear-bearer.” When the contestant lost, they were told to break their own statues in a symbolic death. This action brought a much darker tone to the show: the celebration of human ability was contrasted with the destruction of the human body and the fantasy of violence.
The producers also took inspiration from elements of “Squid Game,” a South Korean drama released in September 2021, to provoke fear and anxiety in the players’ minds. In this fictional show, characters played games to win a cash prize just like the contestants in “Physical: 100.” Unlike “Squid Game,” however, the losers were not killed. Since the series was a sensational hit, there is no doubt the “Physical: 100” creators were inspired to mimic the TV series with real people. The shows are conceptually very similar, and the set of “Physical 100” closely matches the artistic style of “Squid Games.”
However, in the first pre-quest mission, the producers went too far in their attempt to mirror “Squid Game.” While the competitors hung roughly 20 feet in the air from a latticework structure, the floor opened up to reveal fog and water. The players were in an extremely vulnerable position and did not know what they were going to fall into.
When this scene is compared to the first game in “Squid Game” when the players did not know their lives were at stake, the hanging becomes psychologically upsetting. Player voiceovers were added to heighten the drama, but the effect confirmed they were truly scared. One man says, “We couldn’t judge the depth, so it was really scary.” Another asks, “Will I die if I fall down?” This sort of fear is not athletic in any way and borders cruelty.
Amidst the competitions, “Physical: 100” still displayed the contestants’ unwavering camaraderie for one another. The environment was always positive and supportive with contestants cheering each other on in the most challenging moments. The show also helped top-level athletes gain wider recognition for their accomplishments. Many of the contestants voiced their feelings that no one really cared about the hard work they had put into mastering their chosen sport outside of their direct audience. This offered a new way to appreciate cycling and lugging Olympic athletes, ice climbers and CrossFitters after their competitions have ended.
The bigger issue, however, is the fact that “Physical: 100” was not an officially regulated competition, so its producers were seemingly more motivated by viewership rather than athletic prestige — tarnishing the show’s integrity.
“Physical: 100” producers are also facing allegations of falsifying the results in the final rope-pulling game between the top two competitors, CrossFitter Woo Jin-yong and cyclist Jung Hae-min. Originally, Jung pulled “about three times faster” than Woo, yet the two competitors reached the end of the rope surprisingly close together. Woo’s rope seemed to be much easier to pull at the end of the quest, while Jung’s seemed to be fixed in place. The results were surprising since in the previous episodes, Jung seemed to be outcompeting other competitors in both strength and endurance while Woo seemed to require a bit more luck in order to come so far.
Jung broke his silence on the issue in a public statement to the Sunday Paper after receiving criticism from the cycling community. He stated that the final game was filmed three times on the same day. In the first two filmings, he was set to win the challenge. By the third filming, he had used all his energy but was pressured by the producers to continue filming. If they stopped then, the cast and crew of over 100 people would have needed to return the next day to finish.
Allkpop translated Jung’s statement: “The producers said they would cut the rope as much as I had already pulled out, but I don’t know if they really cut it or not. Also, they talked about a fault with the equipment, but I’m not even sure if there was really a fault with the equipment. Maybe it was because I ran out of strength, but when I tried to pull, it wouldn’t budge.”
MBC, the production company, has denied these claims and said the final quest was only filmed one time. However, the cyclist’s silence on Instagram about the show has only added to the controversy. Other competitors have been posting nonstop on social media about their time on the show, but Jung’s profile has no reference to his accomplishments on “Physical 100.”
Either way, there is no proof for any one side of the story, so the truth remains unknown. However, the allegations alone cloud the competition’s authenticity and validity. When combined with the cruel environment generated during filming, it seems like the producers put their ethics aside for the sake of creating something entertaining to watch. Frankly, it is frustrating that a competition with so much potential has been wasted.
“Physical 100” had a lot of potential to highlight the value of human athleticism. The vigor and camaraderie of the competitors were inspiring, but the producers twisted their accomplishments through overdramatization and a lack of integrity. The idea was enough to attract viewers from around the world but still not enough to make “Physical 100” worth watching.
Emma McCandless is an Entertainment Staff Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.