AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's been a rough week in the world of American speed skating, which is something we don't usually hear about until the Winter Olympics. The U.S. speed skating team is reeling. Nineteen current and former short-track skaters have accused their coaches of physical and psychological abuse. There's also an allegation that a coach ordered an athlete to sabotage the skates of a Canadian rival at an international meet last year. NPR's Howard Berkes has been following developments in the story all week, and he joins us now. And, Howard, to start, what exactly do these short-track speed skaters mean by physical and psychological abuse?
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Well, they filed formal complaints and grievances with the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. speed skating, and they describe incidents in which one skater was shoved and hit repeatedly by a coach, others were targets of thrown binders and water bottles and sports equipment. Some of the women skaters say they were singled out because of their gender. They were harassed over their weight, their eating habits. One says she was called a fat cow by her coach. A skater with a back injury was shoved in the back when he complained about his pain during practice. Two of the skaters have actually filed a police report, and the police say they do have an open and ongoing investigation.
CORNISH: And then what about this incident of this alleged sabotage. What happened there?
BERKES: Well, two of the athletes say in a legal document that Olympic bronze medalist Simon Cho, who's one of the most promising skaters on the U.S. team, was told by head coach Jae Su Chun last year to tamper with the skates of a Canadian athlete at the World Team Championships in Poland. Cho then allegedly told his teammates he actually did that, and he referred to that as his darkest secret and he said he regretted it. And, in fact, there was an incident where the skate of the targeted skater malfunctioned at the start of that race.
CORNISH: Now these are very serious allegations, Howard. What evidence, if any, has surfaced?
BERKES: Well, you know, so far on the abuse allegations, it's the word of these 19 complaining skaters, five of whom are Olympic medalists, against the head coach and an assistant coach. Jae Su Chun, the head coach, has admitted to pushing a skater, but he denies that there's abuse otherwise. And there are also nine other skaters who issued a statement in support of Coach Chun and they're saying they never witnessed any abuse. The skate tampering incident is apparently documented, though, in printed out Skype messages sent by Simon Cho to teammates. I haven't actually seen those messages, but there are quotes from them in one of the documents filed by an attorney for the skaters. Cho, by the way, has declined to comment.
CORNISH: What more can you tell us about Coach Chun. And what's his history with U.S. speed skating?
BERKES: Chun was brought in before the Vancouver Olympics and every American short track skater who competed in Vancouver won a medal there. And Chun is given partial credit for that. He's a South Korean. There have been a number of South Koreans who've been hired to coach in the United States because, well, the South Korean skaters are among the best in the world.
And, you know, this isn't the first dispute involving a South Korean coach and American skaters. In fact, earlier this year, an arbitrator banned from coaching, Olympic gold medalist Dong Sung Kim, Kim had coached at several private skating clubs in the Washington D.C. area and the arbitrator found that he had violated U.S. speed skating rules about abusing athletes. Some people suggest, you know, that there's a culture clash underway here. But clearly, if these latest allegations are true, they violate the spirit and the letter of the rules that apply to Olympic coaches in the United States.
CORNISH: Howard, do you have any ideas about why this is coming out now and what investigative bodies are going to be at work trying to sort it all out?
BERKES: This is coming out now because the short track speed skating season actually begins next week. And the athletes want to get this resolved before they're forced, as they feel, to continue to compete under these coaches who they believe are abusive. They're worried that if that happens that that might threaten their position on the team and that they may not be able to qualify for World Cup competition or the 2014 Olympics. There were investigations already underway; an independent law firm enlisted by the U.S. Olympic committee has been looking into these allegations of abuse involving these athletes. But the athletes felt that that investigation was not moving fast enough and that's why they pushed for something more to be done now.
CORNISH: Howard, thank you.
BERKES: You're welcome, Audie.
CORNISH: NPR's Howard Berkes, speaking with us from Salt Lake City about a scandal in U.S. speed skating.