Short track speedskating is one of the highlights of the Winter Olympic games, a thrilling and graceful series of precision ice races around an oval. It has produced an incredibly talented global super-star in the form of Apolo Anton Ohno.
But now, a grimy underbelly is coming to light.
For months, 19 short-track skaters on the U.S. national team have quietly boycotted the U.S. Speedskating association, which has near complete control over the athletes' lives. U.S. Speedskating decides who participates in major national and international competitions, doles out stipends to athletes, and hires coaches and support staff. The boycotting skaters have now formed a splinter group and are asking for donations via the internet.
The athletes' boycott has been, until now, their only recourse to the conduct of an organization that, many skaters believe, places the health and welfare of its athletes second to the business of the Olympics and to the egos of the association's board of directors.
The most serious allegation came to light Sunday: a pattern of verbal and physical abuse by the team’s head coach, Chun Jae Su, aided and abetted by his two assistants.
U.S. Speedskating administrators suspended Chun and hired a white shoe law firm to investigative. On Friday, two speed skaters asked police in Utah to investigate the abuse. The 19 skaters want the U.S. Olympic Committee to sanction U.S. Speedskating for allegedly turning a blind eye to the abuse, and to force them to appoint a new head coach who isn't associated with Chun.
There's little time for all these charges to be worked out; the first competition of the season is less than two weeks away, and U.S. Speedskating will use the results to determine who qualifies for the more prestigious series of international competitions this fall and winter.
The 19 skaters contend that Chun slammed one of the team's top stars against a wall and then hit him, repeatedly.
The identity of the skater is not revealed in the complaint because, the skaters say, they want to protect his privacy.
Chun, in a statement released this weekend, appears to admit to "push"-ing a skater the day before a World Cup meet, but says that he and the skater "resolved the conflict amicably." The skater who was the recipient of Chun's "push" is not among those who signed the protest complaint.
Chun also allegedly threw a binder at the head of another young skater and then doused him with water, repeatedly insulted the physical appearance of women on his team, and regularly ignored members whose performance flagged because of injuries suffered during training. Chun denies these charges. But his admission of physical contact with a player caused his suspension, according to U.S. Speedskating.
Yesterday, 10 skaters who remain on the team issued a forceful statement defending Chun, acknowledging that his coaching style was unorthodox but suggesting, in essence, that their teammates had to suck it up. "We have never seen any abuse take place — physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional — and we know these men are not capable of abuse," the statement read. "Any coach at an Olympic level is going to have high expectations and will push their athletes to be the very best they can be."
The original complaint, filed Aug. 30, is signed by many of the team's current stars and future medalists, including J.R. Celski, Alyson Dudek, Allison Braver, Jordan Malone, and Travis Jayner. Edward Williams, a New York-based attorney and former Olympian, represents the athletes.
The skaters allege that U.S. Speedskating was aware of the physical and psychological abuse and did nothing to stop or mitigate it.
U.S. Speedskating said in a statement that it takes the health and welfare of its athletes seriously and that "the practice sessions for all U.S. Speedskating athletes will be closed. We request that the media respect the privacy of our athletes as they prepare for the start of the upcoming season."
On Monday, USS named Jun Hyung Yeo, one of Chun's assistants, as interim head coach. But Williams, the skaters' lawyer, told NPR that Yeo "participated" in some of the abuse, and several skaters I spoke with said they would not return to a team with Yeo at the helm.
The team's young star, Simon Cho, the 2011 world champion and the 2012 national champion, is not among the signatories to the complaint. He accepted an offer from a trainer in France and spent the summer grinding the ice at an oval outside Paris. It is not clear to Cho's teammates whether he will continue to associate with U.S. Speedskating or join the boycotters. (Disclosure: Simon is a friend, but he won't discuss this situation with me.)
U.S. Speedskating may be forced to field a truncated team of skaters for the 2012 international competitions, which begin in October. The protesting athletes, who have been training privately and at their own expenses, won't skate unless their grievances are met.
Jordan Malone, a bronze medalist in Vancouver, and 10 other skaters on Monday formed a group called "Athletes for a Positive Training Environment." They're asking for donations to defray the costs of private training. "Because we took a stand against abusive coaches and a governing body that chose to ignore it, we have lost … a lot," the athletes say on their Facebook page.
"There are many other athletes that support what we are doing but this group [is] the one that gave up our benefits to take a stand," Malone told me via Twitter.
U.S. Speedskating has hired an outside firm to conduct an investigation of Chun, but the skaters who filed the complaint want a quick resolution because they don't want to miss the chance to participate in the first set of major competitions, which begin in early October.
The allegations against Chun paint an unflattering picture of the association because the players have repeatedly asked their sponsoring group for help. But there are other problems too, and they seem to be institutional.
For example, a separate complaint filed against the CEO of U.S. Speedskating, Mark Greenwald, portrays him as an absentee landlord over an organization run by board members with competing fiefdoms.
Of the roughly $2.5 million per year that the Olympic Committee and others give to the Speedskating association, only a tenth of that money is given to the 20+ athletes on the team, who have to pay some it back in the form of dues.
If a short-tracker injures herself during training, she is forced to go the University of Utah hospital for treatment, and most likely, she will have to pay for it herself. The team will not pay her during her rehab, which is difficult because training to be an Olympian is a full-time thing.
The skaters have complained about the way that money is distributed after major victories and believe there is little accountability in where the team's money goes and how it is raised.
The team members are not rich; they are not even, in many cases, reliably middle class.
The grueling training all but guarantees that they can't get other jobs.
The team's chronic funding difficulties were so acute that in 2010, Stephen Colbert "adopted" the team and provided them with just enough money to skate through the Olympics. Led by Ohno, they won a slew of medals in Vancouver and were national sensations, regularly finding themselves racing during NBC's primetime Olympic coverage.
But skaters were embarrassed that the U.S. Speedskating association had failed in its core duties: to raise enough money for the team to attend.
Ohno, who is not expected to return to the team but who has not formally announced his retirement, is one of the most highly compensated young athletic celebrity endorsers the game has ever produced, rivaling snowboarder Shaun White.
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