Left to train alone, Park Tae-hwan faces murky future

May 14, 2015


SEOUL (Yonhap) — Serving a lengthy doping suspension, Park Tae-hwan has been left to train on his own with his future as murky as ever.

The former Olympic swimming champ was slapped in March with an 18-month ban by FINA, the international swimming governing body, after testing positive for testosterone the previous fall.

The suspension began retroactively on Sept. 3, 2014, when FINA collected Park’s samples, and is set to end on March 2, 2016.

It marked a low point in the otherwise decorated career of the 25-year-old, a national icon who bagged the gold medal in the men’s 400-meter freestyle race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

He added silver in the 200m freestyle at the same Olympics, and then captured silver medals in both the 200m and 400m freestyle events at the 2012 London Olympics. Park is the only South Korean to have won an Olympic swimming medal and boasts two world titles to his credit.

Under FINA’s anti-doping policy, an athlete serving a doping suspension “cannot participate in a training camp, exhibition or practice organized by his or her Member Federation or a club which is a member of that Member Federation or FINA or which is funded by a governmental agency.”

In layman’s terms, this means Park is barred from practicing at national training centers in Seoul and in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province.

On the flip side, the rule leaves Park free to train on his own at arenas not operated by the Korea Swimming Federation.

He’s been trying to do just that, but according to an aide close to the swimmer, Park still doesn’t know when he can return to water.

Reports earlier this week claimed Park is scheduled to join a club run by his former coach, Roh Min-sang, at the Olympic Swimming Pool in Seoul, and that he could start training as early as June 1.

Park’s aide, requesting anonymity, said no date has been fixed and Park was still waiting for the arena to give him the go-ahead.

“Park has asked to be included in Roh’s club, and Roh said he’d have to talk to the pool’s staff,” the aide told Yonhap News Agency. “We’re not in a position to just plan things on our own and start working out on a certain date. All we can do is wait.”

“Obviously, it’s a frustrating situation for Park, but as a penalized athlete, there’s little he can say about the situation.”

Roh said he too was simply waiting for the green light but sounded decidedly more upbeat, saying, “I think some good things will happen.”

Roh rejected earlier reports that there had been a row between the KSF and the arena over allowing Park to train there. Kim Dong-gwon, secretary general at the KSF, confirmed that Park is allowed to train at the Olympic Swimming Pool as he pleases. Kim too turned down claims that the KSF had denied Park permission to swim at the arena under FINA’s anti-doping regulations.

“Since Park received his suspension, we’ve not been involved with his training in any shape or form,” Kim said. “And the Olympic Swimming Pool has never contacted us about this issue. We simply don’t have the authority to talk about Park’s situation at the arena because we don’t run the place.”

Kim said the KSF is only honoring the international rules by not providing any financial or administrative assistance for Park, but added, “If he were to ask for some advice or consultation regarding his training, I suppose we can help out within the boundaries of the rules.”

Even after Park resumes training, he still has to clear another administrative hurdle to compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Park’s suspension ends in March next year, which technically gives him time to prepare for his fourth Olympics. However, under a rule instituted by the Korean Olympic Committee last July, athletes who’ve served a drug-related suspension are ineligible for national teams in any sport for three years, starting on the day the suspension ends.

This means Park won’t be able to compete for South Korea internationally until March 2019, by which time he will be 29 years old and likely past his prime.

Once Park received his penalty, this particular KOC rule became a hot potato in South Korean sports. Some in the legal community say the rule unfairly penalizes athletes a second time for the same offense, and that it is similar to the now-annulled “Osaka Rule.”

Originally adopted by the International Olympic Committee in 2008, the rule barred athletes who had served a doping-related suspension for at least half a year from competing at the following Olympic Games.

In 2011, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the world’s highest sports tribunal, ruled that the Osaka Rule was “a violation of the IOC’s own Statute and is therefore invalid and unenforceable.” The United States Olympic Committee had challenged the rule.

Critics say that because the CAS has already deemed such double punishment invalid, the KOC, which is a member of the international anti-doping community, shouldn’t run counter to international standards.

On the other hand, there are others who believe no special exception should be made for anyone, even for someone of Park’s stature.

Park Dong-hee, head of public relations at the KOC, said the top national sports body doesn’t plan on amending the rule anytime soon.

“We’re not in a situation where we could modify the rule so quickly just because a certain athlete is involved,” the official said. “We’re aware of the controversy surrounding double punishment, but we took that into consideration when we first put the rule in place. Our attorney is reviewing some legal issues but we won’t make any change right away.”

Park said athletes representing the country should be held to the highest standards and that the KOC won’t soften its rule just for one athlete.

“Eradicating doping is more important than competing in the Olympics,” he added. “That’s why we came up with such a tough rule.”

Kim Dong-gwon, the KSF official, said the time isn’t yet right to discuss amending the KOC rule so that Park Tae-hwan can compete in Rio.

“I think the athlete should take more time for some self-reflection,” Kim said. “We also have to make sure we’ll be fair to other athletes in similar situations. And Park also has to be good enough to make the team.”

Park made his last public appearance at a press conference on March 27. He was non-committal about his future at the time. He said he’d appreciate an opportunity to race at the Olympics but added, “I think it’s not appropriate for me to talk about my Olympic participation. I’ve let down so many people, and I believe it’s only right for me to take plenty of time to reflect on myself.”