More than the ice is frosty at the Olympic Oval outside Salt Lake City this week, as short track speedskaters begin the 2012-2013 season.
U.S. skaters are split over allegations of abuse leveled against two coaches and a claim that one coach ordered the sabotage of a Canadian competitor’s skates at an international competition last year.
Twelve skaters are now part of a demand for arbitration that seeks the ouster of Jae Su Chun, the head coach of U.S. Speedskating’s short track team, and assistant coach Jun Hyung Yeo. One skater dropped out of the case Thursday, after deciding to compete on the long track team instead. Nine other skaters have issued a statement supporting their coaches, saying they have not witnessed abusive behavior.
Chun was put on administrative leave after the allegations surfaced and after he issued a statement admitting he pushed a skater but denying the other allegations.
Yeo was named as Chun’s temporary replacement, but a new filing in the arbitration case claims Yeo was aware of “repeated insults” but “did not object, took no steps to stop, and in fact went along with these abusive acts of Jae Su [Chung], who Mr. Yeo regards as his mentor.”
NPR has sought Yeo’s response to these allegations through U.S. Speedskating. A spokeswoman responded by saying USS would not comment until an internal investigation was complete.
The arbitration filing also accuses Yeo of being “aware of and” doing “nothing to countermand the instructions given by Coach Jae Su [Chun] to Simon Cho to tamper with the skates of the Canadian skater Olivier Jean” at an international competition in Poland last year.
Elsewhere in the document, Cho allegedly told teammates in conversations and Skype messages that he tampered with Jean’s skates as ordered.
Cho was interviewed Wednesday by Salt Lake City television station KTVX, but he did not address the tampering incident and the station’s story doesn’t mention it.
“There’s definitely been mistakes by the coach and the skaters,” Cho told KTVX. He also noted that “there’s a fine line between motivating your athletes aggressively and verbal abuse.”
The new filing contains details not previously disclosed. It says Olympic medalist Katherine Reutter, the star of the women’s short track team, was “likened” to “a fat cow” by Chun during practice. Reutter is not competing this season due to persistent injuries.
The new filing also includes statements from skaters, including Jeff Simon, who describes an incident at the Utah Olympic Oval in the Fall of 2009. Simon says he was forced by Chun to skate in practice even though he was suffering stomach pain and said he was too sick to be on the ice.
Simon said he worried he would be kicked off the team if he didn’t comply. “My stomach pain dramatically increased and I was on the verge of tears,” Simon wrote. “At this point, my stomach was so upset, that I defecated a small amount in my racing suit.”
After leaving the ice, “Jae Su [Chun] reiterated that I was being weak and faking in order not to skate.”
Simon also said he suffered severe back pain in August of last year and told Chun he was too injured to complete training. “Why are you so weak?” Chun allegedly screamed. “You are terrible. You need to finish.”
Simon said Chun then “forced me down into position by pushing on my back” and continued to “belittle me while forcing me through the exercise.”
Not long after, Simon said, he was diagnosed with “L4/L5, L5/S1 fractures and annular tears in my discs” and required corrective surgery.
Skater James Rodwosky also submitted a statement accusing Chun of physical and mental abuse. “there was so much mental abuse,” Rodowsky wrote, “that it is difficult to remember all the instances.
NPR has contacted Chun’s Salt Lake City attorneys for comment, but they have not responded so far.
Rodowsky also said USS officials were aware of the athletes’ complaints. “[USS executive director] Mark Greenwald said that if the athletes don’t like things, then he’ll bring in other skaters,” Rodowsky said. “He doesn’t seem at all concerned about the problems the athletes are having and the allegations of abuse.”
USS spokeswoman Tamara Castellano said Greenwald would have no comment until the completion of the USS investigation, which is being conducted by the New York law firm of White and Case. The firm has been enlisted by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to investigate allegations of athlete abuse.
An arbitration hearing is now set for Oct. 8 in Salt Lake City. Castellano says, “White & Case are making every effort to complete the investigation in advance of the arbitration.”
The skaters say the alleged abusive treatment violates USOC standards and guidelines for coaches and the USS Code of Conduct, which prohibits “physical abuse or harm, mental abuse, intimidation, coercion, or the threat of physical abuse or harm.”
The complaining athletes have refused to train with Chun and Yeo. They worry that the dispute may keep them off the U.S. World Cup team, which could also affect their ability to make the team that will compete at the next Winter Olympics in February, 2014.