U.S. Speedskating’s ‘unfortunate’ error costs junior skaters shot to compete at worlds

January 30, 2013

Three of the region’s rising Korean American speedskaters were denied a chance to vie for a spot in next month’s junior world championships, a proving ground for prospective Olympians, because the U.S. federation missed a deadline with the sport’s governing body to establish the skaters’ eligibility for international competition.

Moreover, the manner in which they were excluded — with U.S. Speedskating officials summoning all youngsters of Korean descent to a closed-door meeting and demanding proof of their citizenship during last week’s U.S. Junior Nationals — left some skaters and their parents in tears and others offended.

“I cried until my tears didn’t come out,” said Sally Chea, 15, of Midlothian, Va., who qualified fastest and was favored to advance to the Junior World Championships, which begin Feb. 22 in Poland. “This was the competition I trained for all season, and they took it away from me.”

In the wake of the controversy, the three excluded skaters, who are all Korean American green-card holders but not U.S. citizens, have filed a formal complaint to the U.S. Olympic Committee questioning U.S. Speedskating’s competence and alleging discrimination. The complaint proposes various remedies that would enable them to qualify for worlds, such as re-running the race. Such solutions seem unlikely.

International Skating Union rules permit countries to send any of their citizens to international competitions. In addition, non-citizens who have status as permanent residents (commonly known as “green-card” holders) can compete if their country’s governing body (in this case, U.S. Speedskating) submits a clearance application by July 1 of each year. The ISU grants exceptions for late applications provided they’re submitted no later than 30 days before the international event in which the green-card holder intends to compete.

In this case, U.S. Speedskating submitted no names of green-card holders for ISU clearance July 1, according to spokesperson Tamera Castellano. By the time officials realized green-card holders needed clearance, the 30-day window had come and gone.

“The timing of this was absolutely unfortunate,” Castellano said. “These athletes must have been devastated; to know that is heartbreaking. That’s not what anybody wanted — especially juniors. Could we have handled the timing of this better, such that perhaps the situation could have been avoided? Hindsight is 20-20.”

Although three Canadian American skaters were in the field, only Korean American skaters were called to the meeting. That’s because the citizenship status of the skaters of Canadian descent was clarified in private conversations earlier in the week, Castellano said.

As for the charge of discrimination, Castellano said the organization’s database wasn’t clear about the citizenship status of a handful of skaters — all of whom were Korean American.

“It was certainly not their intention [in calling the meeting] to make people feel discriminated against or anything like that,” Castellano said. “It was bad timing in the interest to trying to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.”

The ISU requirement that green-card holders get clearance to compete internationally has been in place six years, but Castellano said that, because of staff turnover in the past year, no one currently at U.S. Speedskating was aware of it.

Chea, who represented the United States at the 2012 Junior Worlds in Melbourne, Australia, asked how it was possible she was ineligible a year later.

“They forgot about the rule that was passed in 2006?” Chea said in a telephone interview. “Out of the blue they bring it up. And by the time they bring it up, it’s too late. We couldn’t do anything. So I could go [to worlds] last year, but I can’t go this year.”

The U.S. junior championships, which were held last weekend at the Prince William Ice Center in Woodbridge, is a three-day competition. Day One consists of qualifying. The fastest 16 skaters advance to Group 1 races the following day, with the top four finishers earning a spot at worlds. Slower qualifiers advance to Group 2 races and have no shot at worlds.

According to the complaint filed Monday with the USOC, race organizers informed athletes Jan. 20, three days before junior nationals, that they needed to present proof of U.S. citizenship upon checking in. Dominion Speedskating, which trains in Reston and for which Jeong Su Ha competes, sought clarification and was told that non-citizens with green cards also would be eligible.

At registration there was no verification of citizenship status, the complaint said.

After Friday’s time trials, Jeong Su, who qualified among the top 16, was told by a U.S. Speedskating official that he couldn’t compete in the Group I race because he wasn’t eligible for international competition. The official later explained to Dominion Speedskating secretary Regina Hart that U.S. Speedskating hadn’t submitted Jeong Su’s name to the ISU in time because they had been aware of the requirement “for 36 hours.”

The next morning, shortly before the Group 1 races were to start, six Korean American skaters were called to a meeting with three U.S. Speedskating officials and asked about their citizenship.

According to three people who attended, it quickly escalated to a heated exchange between skating officials and angry, bewildered parents and weeping junior skaters.

“It was very emotional on the skaters’ part,” said Hart, who attended as an advocate for one the club’s skaters. “They were told that morning — as their group was warming up to race — that suddenly they could not skate. It was also rather angry. One parent who was a citizen said she was offended that her daughter was called to a meeting that had nothing to do with her. Another parent stormed out saying he was a citizen, and it was discrimination.”

The others, green-card holders who had earned spots in the Group 1 races, were given the option of competing in the Group 2 races, with no chance at earning a spot at worlds.

“It was very poorly handled all around,” Hart said

As of Wednesday, the skaters were awaiting word from the USOC about whether there’s any way they can still to qualify for worlds. Castellano, the U.S. Speedskating spokesperson, wasn’t optimistic.

“There is no solution that will make everybody happy,” Castellano said. “If you re-run the competition and different people win, those people are going to be upset that their original result didn’t stand. I’m not saying there isn’t a way to find common ground. But re-running the competition will open up another set of issues.”

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