KEARNS, Utah — The U.S. Speedskating coaching scandal became even messier Friday.
One speedskater, reigning national short-track champion Simon Cho, faces a disciplinary hearing after confessing Friday that he tampered with a Canadian rival’s skate at the 2011 World Team Championship. Short track interim coach, Jun Hyung Yeo, was suspended Friday by the federation for failing to report that tampering.
And the man at the center of the scandal, head coach Jae Su Chun, remains suspended and also could be disciplined for not reporting the tampering.
But investigators commissioned by U.S. Speedskating to investigate said they didn’t find evidence that Chun engaged in “a pattern of physical and emotional abuse” as alleged by skaters, or Cho’s claim that Chun ordered the skate tampering.
The situation left one skater caught in the middle confounded – less than two weeks before the first World Cup event.
“I have no idea what to do,” said Jeff Simon, among those who alleged he was abused by Chun and who has earned a spot on the World Cup team.
“It seems as nobody is taking decisive action. They have known about these issues for some time. They are quick to point fingers at other people when all the problems have arisen within.”
Simon took issue in that the case was such a small part of the allegations initially brought by more than a dozen skaters yet seemed to be the focus of Friday’s action.
Greg Little, whose New York law firm conducted the investigation, denied the report was an exoneration of Chun.
“There are limitations on what we can say,” Little said, noting an upcoming arbitration hearing. “It is not an exoneration, and not an endorsement of (Chun’s) coaching methods.”
Federation officials said Friday they hoped to have a new coach named by the end of the day or at least by Monday, yet gave no clue as to who that might be – other than to say it would not be one of the coaches of the splinter FAST Team.
A dozen members of the FAST team, including Simon, have filed a demand for arbitration that seeks Chun’s permanent dismissal, and many have said they would refuse to skate for him if he is reinstated.
Cho also said he would not skate again for Chun, a fellow native of South Korea.
An arbitration hearing is set for Nov. 1 in Salt Lake City, but skaters only have until Oct. 13 to decide if they will be part of the fall U.S. World Cup team, which begins Oct. 19 in Calgary.
Cho didn’t qualify, and said the distractions of the skate tampering were a big reason.
Cho admitted Friday at a news conference that he sabotaged the skate of Canada’s Olivier Jean. But he said he did it at the direction of Chun after the coach made the command a third time in Korean.
“When he spoke in Korean, I knew he was serious,” Cho said Friday at his attorney’s Salt Lake City office. “The repetitiveness and aggressiveness of how he came at me was very intimidating. … I knew he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
Cho, 20, said Simon witnessed the first request in English.
Little said Yeo and Chun both acknowledged to investigators that they knew Cho had tampered with a rival’s skate immediately after it took place yet did not report it to authorities.
That’s why the federation suspended Yeo as well. Chun was suspended last month, and has denied all charges.
“As to who said what to whom and what the motivating factors were, we cannot say,” Little said, noting there were three or four conflicting stories.
“There’s not sufficient evidence to conclude that Jae Su directed Simon Cho to tamper with the skates.”
Cho also said he personally witnessed Chun douse a skater with water and hit one with a notebook.
Little, whose firm interviewed more than three dozen people as of the investigation, found the abuse allegations problematic because there was no clear-cut definition of what constituted abuse.
Little said the most serious allegation of physical abuse, in which Chun was accused of beating up a skater in an elevator, could not be proven. Little said the skater when interviewed described a different scenario.
Little’s investigation did hint at problems within the organization.
Investigators acknowledged the athletes lacked “consistent trainer support” and the trainers who were present didn’t know their bodies.
At the same time, funding was reduced in part because the men’s team had such a poor showing last season.
“There was the general perception of skaters that no one at U.S. Speedskating would listen to them about their concerns much less act on them,” Little said.
Simon said late Friday that’s still seems to be the case.
“I feared for my career prior to this. I’m afraid for my future,” he said before working out at the Olympic venue.
Cho’s future, meanwhile, remains unclear though he said Sunday he expects a suspension or ban.
Tamara Castellano, a spokeswoman for U.S. Speedskating, said the organization was “shocked and disappointed” to learn about the skate tampering and does not support or condone Cho’s actions.
A disciplinary panel will be convened to determine possible sanctions against Yeo, Chun and Cho.
Federation officials could not say how long that would take.
“The conduct at issue is repugnant and antithetical to the values of the Olympic Movement and inconsistent with Team USA’s commitment to fair play,” Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Friday morning.
“We regret that an American athlete was involved, and intend to actively engage with U.S. Speedskating to ensure that appropriate action is taken.”
Cho said he was embarrassed by his actions and called his decision to comply the “biggest mistake of my life” and one he regrets.
He also said he apologized to Jean in a phone conversation Thursday night.
“He sounded personally understanding,” Cho said of his conversation.
Cho said the tampering occurred after the U.S. team had already been eliminated from competition.
He maintained Chun was angry at the Canadians and convinced they had aided another team to knock out the U.S. Cho said the tampering took just a few seconds, and was done with a blade bender normally used to ensure a skater’s blade follows the proper radius in short track.
“I always knew it was wrong that day,” Cho said. “I was very scared. I was frightened. And I was intimidated.”
He said Chun at the time said he would take full responsibility if the tampering were ever discovered. But when Cho spoke with him about it a month ago, he said Chun denied any involvement.
“I hope that I can make up for my mistake and continue to skate in the future,” said Cho, a 2010 Olympic relay bronze medalist, and 2011 individual world champion.
Chun’s attorney, Russell Fericks, said his client never pressured Cho to tamper. “That is a sad and extremely unfortunate canard,” Fericks said.
He said Chun was very pleased with the findings by White & Case, and was eager to help U.S. Speedskating “patch up” the team.
Whether that is possible remains to be seen.
A handful of skaters who support Chun, and have passionately defended him, attended Friday’s news conference at the Olympic oval. Others who vehemently oppose him were there as well.
Only Simon wanted to talk.
“To me it’s disheartening to be in this situation, and all my teammates are in it,” he said.