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 the coach "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.
Update at 5:51 p.m. ET: Assistant Will Step In
In a teleconference with reporters, U.S. Speedskating announced that short track assistant coach Jun Hyung Yeo will now assume head coaching duties. Jun is also named in the complaints alleging abuse by coaches, says spokeswoman Tamara Castellano, "but there were no specific complaints made against him so for that reason it's U.S. Speedskating's decision for the stability of the program and the athletes - because they know him and they are comfortable with him - to allow him to coach the program until the investigation is complete."
When asked how skaters could be comfortable with a coach they've named in the complaints, Castellano said the 14 currently competing athletes continue to be coached outside the program.
Castellano also said there's no specific timeline for the completion of the investigation but USS hopes to have it finished before the skaters compete in the U.S. Single Distance Short Track Speedskating championships at the Utah Olympic oval outside Salt Lake City September 27-29. The event is part of the process that will eventually determine which skaters will compete for the United States at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Edward Williams, the attorney for the skaters, says new interim coach Jun Hyung Yeo "participated in some of the abuse" but Williams declined to be specific. He said details will come in an arbitration hearing he hopes to arrange before the upcoming short track competition in Utah. Williams told NPR he will approach USS and the American Arbitration Association tomorrow because he's concerned the USS investigation will not be completed quickly.
"This is a matter of some urgency and has to be decided soon," Williams said.
Williams is also clear about whether the complaining athletes will join the national team program if Jun Hyung Yeo continues as coach or if Jae Su Chun returns.
"They will not skate and represent the United States if any of the coaches [named in the complaints] is on the team," Williams said.
NPR has left messages for a number of the athletes who joined the complaint. None have responded so far.
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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 Ohno 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.