American speedskater Simon Cho has been suspended and will likely face a lengthy ban from competition for taking part in an incredible sabotage plot that saw the Olympic bronze medalist deliberately tamper with a rival's skate to gain a competitive edge.
Cho, 20, who won an Olympic bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games, now finds his career in tatters after confessing to having bent the skate of Canada's Olivier Jean at the World Short Track Championships in Warsaw, Poland in March last year.
U.S. Speedskating has decided to issue Cho a ban, despite his vehement assertions that his actions came as a result of orders from the U.S. team coach, South Korean Jae Su Chun.
"[We are] disappointed by [Cho's] actions," a spokesman said. "We do not, under any circumstances, support, condone or tolerate this behavior."
The American team shared a locker room with the Canadians at the Polish event, one of the most prestigious competitions in short-track speedskating. Cho says that he twice refused Chun's demand that he interfere with the Canadian equipment. According to Cho, Chun ordered him to commit the act in their native Korean language and later repeated it in English, in the presence of teammate Jeff Simon.
"When he spoke in Korean, I knew he was serious," Cho said Friday at a press conference, according to the Associated Press. "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 claims he used a special tool given to him by Chun, picked up Jean's skate and bent the blade enough that it would not glide properly across the ice. Jean was subsequently forced out of the 5000-meter relay final when his skate did not work properly.
Given the high-speed nature of short track skating, the damaged equipment could have caused a serious injury. Canada finished the race in third place, having been among the gold medal favorites.
"I am coming out now and admitting that I did this and acknowledging that what I did was wrong," Cho told NPR earlier this week. "I always knew it was wrong that day. I was very scared. I was frightened. And I was intimidated.
"[Chun] told me that if I wanted to be a leader and carry the team to the next Olympic Games, I had to do it."
Cho's comments come in the midst of a series of accusations against Chun, with 19 current and former speedskaters issuing complaints ranging from physical abuse to psychological intimidation.
One skater, who asked not to be named, told Yahoo! Sports on Friday that Chun "started to lose control" and that his actions were regularly "way over the top." Chun was suspended by U.S. Speedskating pending the investigation and directed all requests for comment on the matter to his attorney Russell Fericks, who stated that the allegations of wrongdoing were "nuts."
Cho won the 500-meter individual title at the World Championships in 2011 and was considered a possible successor to speedkating legend Apolo Anton Ohno, as well as a gold-medal contender for Sochi in 2014.
The United States Olympic Committee is taking an active role in the disciplinary process and has made no secret of the fact that it will lobby for a strong punishment.
"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," the USOC said via a statement. "We regret that an American athlete was involved, and intend to actively engage with US Speedskating to ensure that appropriate action is taken."
Both Cho and Chun both could still face extra sanctions from the International Skating Union, although any such punishments will be investigated separately and not handed down until after the U.S. Speedskating probe is complete.
Cho telephoned Jean earlier this week to issue a personal apology, which was accepted by the Canadian, a popular and respected figure in the speedskating community.
Cho has vowed to keep skating but knows he faces an uphill task to rebuild his career as well as his reputation.
"I went from being … Olympic medalist and world champion to the guy that supposedly tampered with someone's skates," he said. "I have to prepare myself for the consequences and take responsibility."
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