Speedskate case conundrum: Simon says, Simon doesn't

Chicago Tribune

Simon says.

Simon denies.

That contradiction is the most perplexing conundrum to come out of the investigation into allegations of abuse and of involvement in skate tampering made against U.S. short track speedskating head coach Jae Su Chun.

The executive summary of the investigation by the New York-based law firm, White & Case, released Friday, says Simon Cho alleged the coach had first asked him and another U.S. skater, Jeff Simon, to damage a Canadian’s skate at the 2011 World Team Championships in Warsaw.

Jeff Simon denied to the investigators that the conversation took place.

Cho also said he told Jeff Simon during the meet’s final event about having tampered with a skate belonging to Olivier Jean, who was unable to keep skating on the damaged blade.

Jeff Simon denied that conversation took place.  He said Cho first told him about the incident on the plane home from Moscow and, at that time, Cho never mentioned the coach having been involved.

Cho said he finally acceded to the coach’s request when he made it in Korean, their common native language.  Chun has denied that and all other charges of being party to the tampering.

One thing is clear: the allegations about the coach would have been a lot stronger had Jeff Simon corroborated Cho’s statements.

In a Monday text message, Jeff Simon said, “I have been truthful and forthright in my perspective as it pertains to this particular situation.”

Perhaps this “he-said, he-said” conflict will be resolved if the case goes to a scheduled Nov. 1 arbitration, where testimony will be under oath, and there is the possibility to compel witnesses through subpoenas.

For now, US Speedskating can come down hard on the 20-year-old Cho – with full justification – while deciding the behavior of Chun and his assistant, Jun Hyung Yeo, merits a disciplinary process only because they knew what Cho had done but failed to report it.

There will also be a disciplinary process for Cho after what US Speedskating called, an “egregious breach of our code of conduct.”

Cho should get a lengthy suspension for his admission last week of having used a bending machine to damage Jean’s skate blade. After all, no matter what pressure he felt, cultural or otherwise, Cho knew his actions were unethical and inexcusable.

Two years from the date of the punishment seems a reasonable ban, since it would keep Cho, a 2010 Olympic bronze medalist, from competing in the next Winter Games.

Why not lifetime?  Remember that the International Skating Union, which governs speed and figure skating worldwide, gave French Ice Sports Federation president Didier Gailhaguet only a loosely enforced, three-year ban for his involvement in the 2002 Olympic pairs skating fix, and the sulfurous Gailhaguet returned to his federation’s presidency in 2007.

As Cho’s attorney, John Wunderli, notes, there is no logical answer to the question of why the skater would have tampered on his own initiative.  At the time he acted, neither Cho nor the U.S. team stood to gain anything for themselves competitively in the world team meet by hurting Canada’s medal chances.

Jeff Simon, two-event world bronze medalist in 2011, seemingly would have gained by echoing Cho’s story.  After all, Jeff Simon had a significant role in the allegations of abuse against Chun.

He was among more than a dozen skaters who signed complaints against Chun, Yeo and a former U.S. coach, Jimmy Jang, with charges that triggered the investigation and sought the coaches’ dismissal.  Jeff Simon, 23, also filed a report with the Salt Lake City police department alleging Chun had threatened, intimidated and physically assaulted him.

The White & Case investigators decided there was no pattern of emotional abuse and that the allegations of physical abuse “individually do not constitute physical abuse and collectively they do not constitute a pattern of abuse.”

That means the investigators let the coaches skate on the abuse charges by essentially saying there was a lot of smoke, but no fire.

They noted Chun was an “intense and demanding coach. . .(who) can be abrasive. . .and frequently does not communicate effectively.”   They went only so far as to say, ``The allegations against coach Chun are troubling.”

Could all the complainants all have sat down and conspired to take out their dislike for Chun’s methods and frustration with US Speedskating’s leadership by banding together against the coach?  That is another question for which there is no answer, even if such a scenario seems unlikely.

White & Case became involved in this situation after agreeing to do pro bono work under the aegis of the USOC’s new “Safe Sport” program.  The documentation for that program makes it clear that many of the allegations against Chun constitute “emotional misconduct.”

It turns out, according to a Monday story by Howard Berkes of National Public Radio, that an email the investigators used to defuse the strongest charge of physical abuse was misattributed.

It was alleged that Chun threw Ryan Leveille against a wall at a 2008 meet in Harbin, China.  The investigators said Leveille had sent an email to Chun saying the contact had been exaggerated in the allegation and effusively praising the coach.

Leveille told NPR he had never sent such an email and that the "inappropriate incident did occur."  Greg Little of White & Case acknowledged to NPR that another skater had sent the email but contended the error of attribution did not affect the conclusions of the report.

Yet it leaves the impression that White & Case produced a slapdash report that made the case for a rush to judgment.

As the investigators said, the Korean-born US coaches have both strong supporters and strong detractors.  That has divided the US short track athletes, leading many skaters to leave the national racing program run by Chun and Yeo.  Whatever happens to those two coaches, some skaters will be upset.

US Speedskating has suspended Chun and Yeo pending the results of its disciplinary process.  It announced Monday that Stephen Gough and Pat Wentland will take over coaching the national racing program skaters at upcoming World Cups and that Tony Goskowicz will coach those in the national racing program who did not make the fall World Cup team.

Even if the USOC Coaching Ethics Code – which US Speedskating uses – does not specifically address the issue of failure to report an ethical violation, it has enough general language about coaches’ ethical responsibilities to justify dismissing Chun and Yeo.

Such a decision seems the best way for the federation to move forward.  Then it can start dealing with its budget problems and an eventual hearing into charges of general mismanagement and false federal tax filings contained in a lengthy grievance filed by 19 skaters.



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