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(LEAD) (News Focus) Controversy brews over Park Tae-hwan's Olympic eligibility after strong competition

All News 18:48 April 28, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with latest result in para 3, comments)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, April 28 (Yonhap) -- Following the end of his 18-month doping suspension, former Olympic swimming champion Park Tae-hwan proved this week he can still compete at a high level.

Whether he gets to showcase his talent at this year's Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro is another matter. National sports officials remain adamant -- stubbornly so, in the eyes of their critics -- they won't amend a controversial rule banning athletes with a recent doping history from competing internationally, and won't create an exception for anyone in particular.

Park swept up four titles -- the 100m, 200m, 400m and 1,500m freestyle -- at the 88th Dong-A Swimming Competition in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. In Wednesday's 400m freestyle, his main event, Park posted the world's fourth-fastest time of the season.

The meet doubled as the national team trials for the Rio Games, but Park is ineligible for the Olympics under a Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) rule. Instituted in July 2014, those who have been suspended for doping can't represent the country for three years, starting from the day their suspension ends.

The 18-month ban for Park, who tested positive for testosterone, began retroactively in September 2014 and ended in March this year.

Park had kept mum after the end of his suspension while he was training in Australia for the Dong-A meet. When he finally spoke to the press after Wednesday's race, Park said he felt he could acquit himself well if he's given a chance to compete in Rio.

"If I'm given the chance to compete at the Olympics, I'm confident I can win in a fight against myself," Park said. "I think any medal will follow if I can beat my own record. I want many people to support my challenge."

"I think my responsibility is to put my best efforts forward in each of the events," he added. "I want to have another chance to beat my records, hopefully at the Olympics."

After his 100m victory on Thursday, Park said he felt he had done everything he could.

"I did my best to prepare for this competition, and I think I've done everything I could for the people," Park said. "It's all out of my hands now. While getting ready for this meet, I felt it'd be best to keep quiet and let my records do the talking."

Ever since Park was suspended the KOC has been under pressure to consider altering the rule and throw the swimmer a lifeline. Park won the 400m freestyle gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and added silver in the 200m freestyle. Four years later in London, he won silver medals in both the 200m and 400m freestyle.

Park remains the only South Korean with an Olympic swimming medal, and he would certainly contribute to South Korea's chase for a fourth consecutive top-10 finish in the Summer Olympics medal race.

The KOC, however, wouldn't budge when pressed about the potential rule change.

"Rules are rules, and records are records," said Cho Young-ho, the KOC's secretary-general, at a press conference in Seoul marking the 100-day countdown to Rio 2016. "We are not going to reconsider Park's case."

Critics of the KOC have pointed out that the rule unfairly penalizes athletes twice for the same doping 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.

According to the KOC's critics, because the CAS has already deemed such double punishment invalid, the KOC, as a member of the international anti-doping community, should also honor international standards.

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

And Cho said penalizing athletes for doping will actually benefit them in the long run.

"Taking a banned substance is an antisocial action," he said. "We will actually toughen the punishment to make sure there will be no more doping cases in the future, and that's actually good for athletes."

While Park has shied away from openly pleading for a second chance, his coach, Roh Min-sang, has been decidedly more outspoken.

"We've been training hard in a hopeless situation, and I hope Park Tae-hwan will be sent to Rio," Roh said Wednesday, fighting back tears. "Park has better concentration than any other swimmer and he can get into form quickly."

When asked Thursday if any legal action would be in the offing against the KOC's rule, Park claimed he didn't know the details because he'd only focused on training.

"I don't know how things will turn out, but my agency will take care of it," he added.


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