Saying he acted on orders from national team head coach Jae Su Chun, U.S. short-track speedskater Simon Cho admitted to having tampered with the skates of a Canadian athlete at the 2011 World Team Championships in Warsaw, Poland.
The sabotage, which involved skater Olivier Jean, kept his Canadian team, the bronze medalists, from contending for the gold or silver medal. It likely will have larger repercussions, including potential suspensions for Cho and Chun and a negative international image for U.S. Speedskating that will require significant damage control from the federation and U.S. Olympic Committee.
"I have done him a horrible wrong," Cho said.
Speaking this week with reporters from the Tribune, the Washington Post and National Public Radio, Cho said he always understood he was doing something wrong but felt compelled to follow Chun's order.
“I felt extremely guilty, and I felt terrible for what I had done immediately,” Cho said. “I was regretful and thought to myself I should have never done it.”
Cho, a native of South Korea, said Chun, also South Korean, asked him three times to “mess with somebody's skates.” Cho said he declined twice.
“The final time, he came to me not only as a coach but as an elder and a fellow Korean,” Cho said. “In Asian culture when an elder asks you to do something very difficult, to deny the request, no matter how ridiculous it might sound at the time … I had a lot of pressure from that.”
Chun was suspended as national team head coach Sept. 16, pending an investigation and arbitration hearing into allegations he had abused skaters physically and verbally as well as the tampering allegation. Chun has publicly denied the abuse allegations.
Asked about the tampering allegation, specified in an arbitration filing that seeks Chun's dismissal, the coach's lawyer called it an “irresponsible canard.”
“There is a lot to say about this erroneous allegation, but I am constrained by the arbitrator's instruction to maintain confidentiality about the evidence and the proceedings,” said the attorney, Russell Fericks, of Salt Lake City.
“At this stage, all I can say is Simon Cho is young and impressionable, and it is sad he feels compelled to support this irresponsible canard.”
The incident occurred March 20, 2011, the final day of the World Team Championships, where the Canadian and U.S. teams shared a locker room.
Cho recalls about 30 people coming in and out of the locker room, so it was hard to find a moment alone to commit the sabotage. When Cho acted, he was unaware of which Canadian's skate he had damaged with a device called a bending machine, which adjusts the curve of a blade.
“I was scared and panicky, so I picked up the first skate I saw,” Cho said.
Cho bent the blade enough that Jean had to withdraw during the meet's final event, the 5,000-meter relay. Given the nature of short track, the damage could have led to a dangerous crash.
“I want to apologize to Speedskating Canada, the Canadian team and most of all Olivier Jean,” Cho said.
Cho said he thinks Chun told him to tamper with the skates out of vengeance. In Cho's view, the coach was upset because he felt the Canadians had used tactics designed to hurt U.S. chances at a medal. The tampering took place after the U.S. team was out of medal contention.
In an email sent by his attorney, Cho said, “When Coach Chun first approached me to tamper with the Canadians' skates, I was with my teammate, Jeff Simon. We both said we wouldn't do it.
“Coach Chun then followed me on my own and told me again in Korean to tamper with the skates, and I again refused, but he said it again the third time and I agreed. I was scared, but I did it. I wish I would have had the courage to say no.”
Jean, a member of Canada's gold medal relay at the 2010 Olympics, said a week ago, when the allegation became public, that he always suspected there had been tampering but had no proof and had put the incident behind him. Speedskating Canada has said it would have no comment until the U.S. investigation is complete.
Both Chun and Cho have cooperated with the independent investigation into complaints about the coach being conducted for U.S. Speedskating by the New York-based law firm, White & Case. Cho said he told the investigators about the tampering during an hour-long interview in September.
"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," USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said Friday. "We regret that an American athlete was involved, and intend to actively engage with US Speedskating to ensure that appropriate action is taken."
U.S. Speedskating has scheduled a Friday news conference for the release of the report. The arbitration hearing is scheduled Nov. 1.
“Our understanding is Jae Su has denied he told Simon to do this,” said Cho's attorney, John Wunderli of Salt Lake City. “It is really inconceivable Simon would have done this on his own.”
Cho came to the United States as a toddler and lived in the Maryland suburbs of Washington until moving to Salt Lake City in 2009. He had competed on U.S. teams directed by Chun since 2007.
“Him and I had maintained a good relationship until this incident,” Cho said during the telephone interview.
Cho was not sure what would have happened if he had refused the coach's order.
“The bad thing is the consequences of doing it were greater than if I had just told him no,” Cho said. “At the time I was intimidated by my coach and fearful.”
According to the arbitration filing and a complaint against Chun filed with the U.S. Olympic Committee, Cho had discussed the incident with a U.S. skater on the plane home from Warsaw and in some later text messages to the same skater. Cho said he didn't know how many other U.S. skaters were aware of what he had done.
Cho was not among the skaters, more than a dozen in all, who signed documents alleging Chun's misconduct. He told his parents about the tampering incident a couple of months ago, about the time attorney Edward Williams of New York had become involved in drafting documents for the complainants.
Asked if he regretted that one or more other skaters had implicated him in the charges against the coach, Cho said, “I'm disappointed at how this all came about. But I did what I did and said what I said.
“That was a very dark time for me. The best thing I can do now is be honest about everything.”
After failing to make the U.S. team for the three fall World Cups last Sunday, when he had yet to admit his transgression publicly, Cho told reporters he “did not expect to get out of this situation without damage.”
The International Skating Union, international governing body of the speedskating, issued a statement Friday saying it was aware of the case and declining to comment on an ongoing disciplinary matter. The ISU has sanction provisions in its constitution against an athlete “who can be proved to have acted against the spirit of the ISU statutes or otherwise improperly.” The sanctions include warning, suspension and life ban.
“I'm an athlete and being a year and a half away (from the 2014 Winter Games), I would like to continue my shot at the next Olympics,” Cho said. “But that is not up to me.”