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(News Focus) Future still murky for Park Tae-hwan after doping suspension ends

All News 11:40 March 03, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- His lengthy doping suspension is now behind him, but South Korean Olympic swimming champion Park Tae-hwan still faces a murky future, with no assurance that he will be eligible for this year's Summer Games.

The 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 400m freestyle was slapped with an 18-month ban last March by FINA, the international swimming governing body. Park tested positive for testosterone, and the suspension began retroactively on Sept. 3, 2014, when FINA collected his samples.

The ban ended Wednesday, but Park still has to clear an administrative hurdle to compete at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which would be his fourth Summer Games.

Under a rule instituted by the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) in July 2014, 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.

The local legal community has pointed out that the KOC 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 (IOC) 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 (CAS), the world's highest sports tribunal, determined 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 of the KOC say that because the CAS has already deemed such double punishment invalid, the KOC, as a member of the international anti-doping community, shouldn't run counter to international standards.

One KOC official, requesting anonymity, said the South Korean Olympic body was aware of the controversy concerning double punishment, and it took that into consideration when the rule was enacted.

The KOC, which at first balked at altering the rule for one athlete, budged late last year under mounting criticism and said it would look into modifying the rule -- with one caveat.

The KOC has been in merger talks with the Korea Council of Sport for All (KOCOSA), which oversees everyday sports for the general public, and the KOC has said it would review the controversial rule after the unified sports body is formed.

The two organizations had set out to complete the merger by March 27, but the IOC sent a letter to the KOC last week recommending the merger be postponed, preferably until after the Rio Olympics in August.

Representatives from the KOC and the KOCOSA are scheduled to meet with IOC officials at the Olympic body's headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Friday. With the KOC's own future up in the air, any discussion or debate on the rule that affects Park has been placed on the back burner.

Embezzlement and corruption allegations surrounding the Korea Swimming Federation (KSF), with his long-time coach Roh Min-sang also implicated, have been another source of distraction for Park.

Roh has been stripped of his KSF board membership after allegedly bribing the federation's executive director in exchange for a seat on the board. The executive director has been arrested and Roh, who coached Park to the 400m gold and 200m silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is also facing investigation.

Roh and Park, who first met when the swimmer was eight, had a falling out after Beijing, and Park went on to work with Australian coach Michael Bohl. They were reunited last June after Park was suspended.

Under FINA's anti-doping policy, Park was barred from training at national training centers operated by the KOC or the KSF during his suspension. And Roh, who was running classes at the publicly run Olympic Swimming Pool in Seoul, reached out to his former pupil and offered Park a two-hour slot each day.

And when Park spent the last three months of 2015 working out in Osaka, Roh paid a visit to check up on the swimmer's progress.

As Park gears up for the national team trials next month, however, the coach that knows him the best may not be around to work with the swimmer.

In the meantime, those in Park's camp say there is little the swimmer can do other than focus on returning to competition.

"It's difficult enough for him to get ready for the national team trials," said Park In-mi, head of marketing at the swimmer's agency, Team GMP, and also Tae-hwan's older sister. "The end of the suspension doesn't affect his training situation."

She declined to comment on the KOC's rule, but she did say it would "lessen the burden" on the swimmer if the KOC made changes.


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