U.S. Speedskating has placed head short track coach Jae Su Chun on administrative leave in response to complaints of physical, verbal and psychological abuse.
Nineteen current and former skaters, including five Olympic medalists, signed complaints filed with U.S. Speedskating and the U.S. Olympic Committee. An attorney for the skaters says two of the athletes are also completing police reports in Utah, where U.S. Speedskating is based and where the athletes train.
The complaints describe one incident in which “Jae Su slammed an athlete up against a wall and repeatedly hit him … causing the athlete physical injury and distress.”
The short track head coach is also accused of throwing bottles, notebook binders, chairs and sports equipment at or in the presence of athletes and showering them with insults.
Female athletes were singled out, the complaints allege, for abusive language and treatment. “Jae Su repeatedly told the female skaters that they were ‘fat,’ ‘disgusting’ and that they should ‘not eat … which caused some of them to seek professional psychological assistance.”
One unnamed female skater was referred to as a “fat cow,” the complaints charge.
Jae Su Chun is one of several South Koreans hired by U.S. Speedskating in recent years to coach American athletes. He is credited with helping achieve the short track team’s success at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
In a translated statement released Sunday, Chun acknowledged an incident in which he pushed an athlete and later apologized. “We resolved the conflict amicably and certainly he was not injured,” the statement said.
Chun added that he believes he has “not abused athletes in any way.”
The complaints allege, but do not describe, sexual misconduct. “This simply has not happened,” Chun said.
Shortly after Chun issued his statement, U.S. Speedskating responded by placing the coach on administrative leave until the group’s investigation is completed.
U.S. Speedskating said it suspended Chun “in light of the statement released today by Jae Su Chun — along with an ongoing investigation.”
News of the complaints broke Friday as more than 100 summer Olympic and Paralympic athletes met with President Obama at the White House. “These are obviously serious allegations and we are working closely with [U.S. Speed Skating] to look into this and fully understand the issues in this case,” said Patrick Sandusky, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The athletes are represented by New York attorney Edward Williams, a former Olympic biathlete who has been an activist for Olympic athletes.
Chun “may wish to deny all he wants,” Williams told NPR, but “too many athletes experienced the abuse and others (including U.S. Speedskating staff) witnessed it.”
Williams says in the complaints that athletes are boycotting official team training to avoid abusive behavior of Chun and other coaches. The short track World Cup season is about to begin and failure to train and compete with the team could cost skaters World Cup points that are used to determine who qualifies to skate in the next winter Olympics in 2014.
U.S. Speedskating has scheduled a news conference for 4 p.m. ET Monday.
The complaints also allege that U.S. Speedskating itself is mismanaged, has made false statements in IRS filings and has failed to respond to athletes’ complaints about abuse. The group says an investigation is being conducted by an independent law firm.
These are not the first allegations of abuse involving speedskating coaches. Earlier this year, an arbitrator ruled that independent coach Dong-Sung Kim, a South Korean working with U.S. skaters, physically abused athletes. U.S. Speedskating imposed a lifetime ban, but the arbitrator reduced the ban to six years.
The complaints involving Chun are not signed by two of America’s most successful short track speed skaters, eight-time medalist Apolo Anton Ono and two-time medalist Katherine Reutter, a 2010-2011 World Cup Champion. But the documents are signed by 2010 bronze medalists J.R. Celski, Travis Jayner, Jordan Malone, Allison Baver and Alyson Dudek.
Speedskating is the sport that has produced the single biggest haul of winter Olympic medals for Team USA.