Olympic bronze medalist Simon Cho has told investigators that he sabotaged the skate of a Canadian rival at the insistence of U.S. national coach Jae Su Chun, who was placed on administrative leave earlier this month following allegations of physical and psychological abuse by 14 elite athletes.
And in an interview with The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, the 20-year-old Cho provided a detailed account of the circumstances, including the tool he used to inflict the damage and the cultural pressure he felt to obey his coach, a fellow South Korean native and elder; the remorse he felt the moment Canada’s Olivier Jean fell while competing on a damaged blade; and his hope of qualifying for the 2014 Sochi Olympics after serving whatever punishment awaits.
Cho, 20, who trained at Arlington’s Potomac Skating Club, called Jean to apologize Thursday night and expects to be disciplined for his actions by U.S. Speedskating.
“I’ve done him a horrible wrong,” Cho said during a conference call with the two newspapers. “I just want to apologize to Speedskating Canada, the Canadian team and most of all Olivier Jean. I have great respect for Olivier Jean as a person and an athlete.”
Chun’s lawyer, Russell Fericks, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the coach insists he told no athlete to damage a Canadian’s skate.
“It’s very disappointing, for whatever reason, that Simon Cho feels compelled to persist in this canard that his coach instructed him to tamper with another skater’s equipment,” Fericks said. “Simon Cho is a young and impressionable man, and he is under a lot of pressure.”
A reigning world champion, Cho won bronze in the 5,000-meter relay at the 2010 Olympics. But 16 months from the 2014 Games, he faces punishment that could range from a suspension to a lifetime ban from competition.
Cho said he provided a full, honest account of his actions during an hour-long interview Sept. 19 with the law firm White & Case, which has been retained by U.S. Speedskating to investigate the allegations of abuse against Chun, the U.S. national coach since 2007.
The skate-tampering, and Chun’s alleged role in it, is the most explosive episode detailed in a raft of documents filed by U.S. speedskaters over the past five weeks in three separate initiatives to oust Chun and his assistants.
U.S. Speedskating is expected to decide whether to reinstate Chun, and what disciplinary action to take against Cho, after the law firm submits its findings. That could come Friday, when U.S. Speedskating holds a news conference at 3 p.m. Cho has scheduled his own news conference at noon to air his version of events.
Cho’s confession is a rare admission of sabotage by a world-class Olympian. The peculiar twist is that it resulted in no competitive advantage for Cho or the U.S. men’s team. Whether on Chun’s orders or not, it occurred after the U.S. men had been eliminated from the 2011 world championships in Warsaw. The sole purpose, Cho believes, was vengeance toward Canada on the part of Chun, who felt the Canadians had manipulated the outcome by allowing a Japanese skater to beat one of its own in a preliminary heat and, in turn, bump the U.S. from medal contention.
According to Cho, when Chun first approached him about tampering with a Canadian’s skates, he was with his teammate Jeff Simon, and both athletes said they wouldn’t do it. Chun then spoke with Cho privately, recounted Cho, who said he again refused. But on the coach’s third instruction, Cho said, he relented.
“He came to me not only as my coach [but also as] an elder and fellow Korean,” Cho said. “In Asian culture, when an elder asks you to do something, it’s very difficult to deny their request, no matter how ridiculous it might sound at the time. I had a lot of pressure from that.”
Asked what Chun said, Cho replied, “If I had to translate into English, he told me to mess up somebody’s skates.”
Cho said he then pulled a roughly foot-long piece of metal used to bend blades from a coach’s bag and set out to damage the first skate he came across in a locker room shared by about 30 Canadian and American skaters.
“It was very difficult to be alone,” Cho said. “There was a window of time where I was able to do it. I was scared and panicking. I picked up the first skate I saw, and it happened to be Olivier Jean’s.”
Jean fell in the race that followed and was forced to withdraw.
“I felt extremely guilty,” Cho said. “I felt terrible for what I had done.”
U.S. Speedskating officials placed Chun on administrative leave Sept. 16. The skaters seeking his dismissal have refused to train with his temporary replacement, Chun’s top assistant, and now compete for a different team.
An arbitration hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1.
Asked how he would characterize Chun, with whom he has trained since he was 15, Cho said, “There is no such thing as perfect coach. It was my job to make sure that I took the best out of every coach and implemented that into my own training.”
Asked whether he had learned from the experience, Cho said: “I certainly learned a lot. I hope that younger generations of athletes are able to take away from this, as well, and learn from my example. Do what you believe it right.”