American speedskater Simon Cho says what he did was "wrong" when he yielded to what he claims was persistent pressure from a coach to tamper with another skater's blades at the World Short Track Team Championships in Poland last year.
"Tampering with someone's skates is inexcusable," Cho told NPR in his first interview about the incident. "And I'm coming out now and admitting that I did this and acknowledging that what I did was wrong." The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune also spoke with Cho earlier this week after the NPR interview.
Cho, 20, won a bronze medal in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and is the reigning world and national champion in the 500-meter short track event. He was considered a good prospect for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but the tampering incident clouds his future.
"Simon was directed to do what he did by his coach," says John Wunderli, his Salt Lake City attorney.
"He had nothing personally to gain by doing it and gained nothing personally from doing it," Wunderli adds, as he argues for leniency for Cho. "And [he's] now being completely honest and taking responsibility for doing it. I think those three points have to be taken into consideration."
Allegations Against The U.S. Coach
Cho claims that Jae Su Chun, the head coach of U.S. Speedskating's short track team, repeatedly approached him at the March 2011 championship event in Poland.
"He asked me to tamper with another skater's skates," Cho says. "And I told him 'no' two times before he came to me and asked me again to do this."
Documents filed in a related arbitration case allege that Chun told his team to be "obnoxious" to the Canadian skaters who shared a locker room with the Americans.
Cho — along with other skaters in undisclosed documents — says Chun told them he believed the Canadian team manipulated the results in earlier races, resulting in the elimination of the U.S. team before the event's final relay.
Chun says the allegations are "untrue," according to Russell Fericks, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the embattled coach. Nineteen current and former speedskaters from the U.S. team have also filed complaints accusing Chun of physical, psychological and verbal abuse.
U.S. Speedskating has placed Chun on administrative leave while an outside law firm investigates. "None of this is true," Ferick says. "And the idea of an international coach on that level instructing a skater to tamper with another skater's skates — that's nuts."
'I Panicked And I Bent It'
But Cho says his coach was insistent. He remembers Chun saying, "If you want to be a leader for this team, if you want to carry this team to the next Olympic Games, you need to do this."
That's a powerful threat, according to Rob Plum, a veteran speedskater himself and vice president of the Leading Edge Short Track Speedskating Club in Rockville, Md.
"No other words would need to have been said at that point," says Plum, who knows Cho and his family well and has closely followed Cho's career and the coaching he has received.
"The coach has infinite say [over] your career," Plum adds. "In world events like the Olympics or World Cup events, we're only sending five or six skaters. You have 16 [or] 32 people vying for those spots, so if the coach is threatening to bench you, there's another person behind you waiting to come on."
Cho says he took his coach's "bending machine," a device used to strategically bend a skate blade. It's meant to help the blades grip the ice just right for the 30-mph speeds and steep turns in short track racing.
The locker room shared with the Canadians was empty, so Cho says he picked up the nearest skate. "It just happened to be Olivier Jean's because we just happened to be sitting next to each other" in the locker room, Cho says.
"I panicked and I bent it," Cho says. "My hands were shaking because I was so terrified."
Jean is one of the top skaters on the Canadian team, and he was forced out of the final relay when his skates didn't track properly on the ice.
"I'd like to apologize to Speed Skating Canada, the entire Canadian team [and], of course, Olivier Jean," Cho says. "I want them to know that I have nothing but respect for them and that I'm truly sorry."
A Personal Connection
Both Cho and Chun are South Korean natives. Cho entered the U.S. from Canada with his family when he was 4. He had already started speedskating before he left Korea.
The Chos are American citizens now, and the family has focused on his career, following him from Maryland to the Salt Lake City suburbs where U.S. Speedskating is based and skaters train. The family left jobs and a business behind, spending as much as $30,000 a year to support Cho's training.
Cho believes the fact he and Chun are Koreans made him vulnerable.
"He was not only coming at me as a coach, but as a fellow Korean and as an elder," Cho says. "When an elder tells you to do something, it's very difficult to tell him no."
Cho also had won the World Championship in the 500-meter event the week before the incident.
"The same person that helped me win this title was asking me to do this ridiculous thing, so I was in a dark spot," Cho recalls, adding that Chun shifted from English to Korean as he pressured Cho to comply. "I was scared. I was intimidated."
Ethicist Michael Josephson of the Josephson Institute in Los Angeles has conducted ethics training for Olympic athletes and says if Cho's account is accurate, he must receive significant punishment.
"That is cheating of the highest order," Josephson says. "It is an incredibly serious [and] dastardly thing to do."
The International Skating Union has sanctions for cheating that include suspension, banishment for life and fines. The group says it won't comment about the allegations involving Chun until U.S. Speedskating completes its investigation.
"We need to take into consideration both the fact that it was his coach that ordered it and the fact that culture makes it even harder to defy it," Josephson adds. "I think the athlete should be punished seriously to send the message, but not so seriously that it ends his career."
The athletes who accused Chun and other coaches of abuse demanded an arbitration hearing. They want Chun and another coach removed from the team. The arbitration is scheduled for Nov. 1.
U.S. Speedskating expects to receive the investigation report by early next week at the latest. "Should the findings of the investigation warrant," the group says in a statement, "U.S. Speedskating will take immediate action to rectify any issues that may be uncovered in advance of the scheduled arbitration."
Late Thursday, U.S. Speedskating announced a news conference for 3 p.m. ET Friday. Cho is holding his own news conference three hours earlier in Salt Lake City.
Speed Skating Canada has declined to comment.
Cho says he wants to continue skating, but he understands that some form of punishment is coming.
"I hope that younger generations of athletes who hear about this are able to learn from my example," Cho says. "I want them to learn to do what they believe is right and not [yield to] the manipulation of others no matter how authoritative they may seem."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
An Olympic short track speedskater accused of sabotaging the skate of a rival has confessed in an NPR interview. American Simon Cho is a reigning world and national champion, and he says his coach ordered him to tamper with another athlete's skate at an international meet in Poland last year. Cho complied, forcing a Canadian skater out of a race. Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Simon Cho was considered a top prospect for the next Winter Olympics in 16 months. Still fresh is this moment at the last Winter Games two years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The bronze medal winners, Team United States of America.
BERKES: Cho and his three relay teammates stepped up on the medals platform in Vancouver, speedskaters thin in their blue USA uniforms, smiling and waving to the crowd. It had been 14 years since Cho and his Korean family snuck across the border near Vancouver. Already a speedskater at age four, it was his American dream to hear this at an Olympics...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Simon Cho.
BERKES: ...and to lean down as an Olympic medal was draped around his neck.
SIMON CHO: It's a pretty indescribable feeling. Like amazing, like, wouldn't even be the word.
BERKES: At 20 now and still with a boyish face, Cho and his family are American citizens with lives steeped in short track. We sit at the dining room table in his lawyer's house in a Salt Lake City suburb, a pair of speed skates at Cho's feet. He has decided to admit a terrible thing, which began in March of last year in Warsaw, Poland at the World Short Track Team Championships. Cho says the U.S. team was already out of the relay final when he was approached by American head coach Jae Su Chun, who's also from South Korea.
CHO: He asked me to tamper with another skater's skates. And I told him no two times before he came to me and asked again to do this.
BERKES: The lawyer for Jae Su Chun says that's not true. Russell Fericks adds that the idea of an international coach on that level instructing a skater to do this is nuts. But Simon Cho claims this is what happened next.
CHO: He was, like, listen, like, if you want to be a leader for this team, like, and if you want to carry this team through to the next Olympic Games, like, you know, you need to do this. The way he spoke, like, not only was he coming at me as a coach, but, like, as a fellow Korean and as an elder.
BERKES: Cho says as Coach Chun persisted, he shifted from English to Korean.
CHO: When an elder tells you to do something, it's very difficult to reject him and tell him no. So, that was hard on me to have to tell him no twice, and then him come at me a final time. I was scared. I was intimidated. The week before, I had just won a world championship title. And the same person that helped me to win this title, like, was asking me to do this ridiculous thing. So, I was in a dark spot.
BERKES: Coach Chun is also accused of physical and psychological abuse in complaints filed by 19 other current and former skaters. Some claim in legal documents that he told his team to be obnoxious to Canadian skaters in their shared locker room in Poland. He allegedly told them he believed that Canadians manipulated the results in earlier races, leaving the Americans out of the relay final. Coach Chun, through his attorney, says none of this ever happened. Skater Simon Cho stayed in the locker room until he was alone.
CHO: I took my coach's, like, bending machine and, you know, I grabbed a skate and it just happened to be Olivier Jean's, because we were sitting next to each other at the time. You know, I panicked and bent it. And, you know, my hands were shaking, because I was terrified. So, I screwed up.
BERKES: A bending machine bends a skate blade strategically so that it grips the ice just right at the 30 mile-an-hour speeds and steep turns in short track. Cho hit the bending lever hard. Olivier Jean was forced out of the final relay when his skate didn't track the way it should. Jean and his teammates then inspected the blade, spotted the damaging bend and suspected sabotage. This could get Cho suspended long enough to miss the next Olympics. He could also be banished for life. His attorney, John Wunderli, pleads for leniency.
JOHN WUNDERLI: Simon was directed to do what he did by his coach. He had nothing personally to gain from doing it, and gained nothing personally from doing it, and is now being completely honest and taking responsibility for doing it. I think those three points have to be taken into consideration.
BERKES: Veteran speedskater Rob Plum agrees, especially given Coach Chun's alleged threat about Cho carrying the team to the next Olympics.
ROB PLUM: No other words would need to have been said at that point.
BERKES: Plum helps manage the Leading Edge speedskating club in Rockville, Maryland. He knows Simon Cho and his family well, and has closely followed Cho's career and coaching.
PLUM: The coach has infinite say of your career. And you have to realize that in world events, like the Olympics or World Cup events, we're only sending five or six skaters at the most, and you have 16, 32 people vying for those spots. So if the coach is threatening to bench you, there's another person behind you waiting to come on. So those are not idle threats at all.
BERKES: But there still must be meaningful punishments, says ethicist Michael Josephson, who has conducted ethics training for Olympic athletes. If Cho's account is accurate, he says...
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: That is cheating of the highest order. It is an incredibly serious, serious dastardly thing. But we need to take into consideration both the fact that it was his coach that ordered it and the fact that the culture makes it even harder to defy it. And while I think the coach should be far more culpable, and probably he should be banned for life, I think the athlete should be punished seriously to send a message, but not so seriously that it ends his career.
BERKES: Cho says he knows he must be punished, but wants to continue to skate on into the next Olympics, and as he has since he was three in South Korea.
CHO: You know, tampering with somebody's skates is inexcusable. You know, there's no excuse for it, and it's wrong. And I'm coming out now and, you know, admitting that I did this and acknowledging that what I did was wrong. So, hopefully, people will understand that and believe my story.
BERKES: U.S. Speedskating has an investigation underway and says a report may be ready next week. The International Skating Union and Speed Skating Canada have declined comment until the facts are in. An arbitrator is also set to hear the case, including the allegations of physical and psychological abuse. It seems the fates of Coach Jae Su Chun and skater Simon Cho will be decided soon. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
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INSKEEP: And let's stay on the ice for a moment. The National Hockey League yesterday announced the cancellation of the first two weeks of the regular season. The league locked out the players in September after the two sides failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. The owners want the players to take a smaller cut of league revenues, which were at a record high last season. The last NHL lockout saw the complete cancellation of the season in 2004-2005.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.