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(LEAD) With key figures banned, triathlon body shifts focus to mysterious 'team doctor'

All News 16:42 July 07, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS more info in para 6)

SEOUL, July 7 (Yonhap) -- With some principal figures in a snowballing abuse scandal in South Korean triathlon having been disciplined, the sport's national governing body will now turn its eyes to a largely mysterious man that athletes referred to as "doctor," despite his lack of a medical license.

Choi Suk-hyeon, a former triathlete on Gyeongju City Hall's semi-pro club, took her own life in late June but not before making allegations of physical and verbal abuse against her former coach Kim Gyu-bong, two older teammates and the so-called team doctor named Ahn Joo-hyeon.

Kim Gyu-bong, head coach of the triathlon team at Gyeongju City Hall and a central figure in an abuse scandal involving a late athlete, leaves the disciplinary committee meeting held by the Korea Triathlon Federation in Seoul on July 6, 2020. (Yonhap)

With Choi's former teammates also supporting those allegations and offering more claims themselves, the Korea Triathlon Federation on Monday banned Kim and one of the older teammates for life, while suspending the other athlete for 10 years.

Ahn, though, was not subject to punishment by the federation, because he had never been formally registered with the team and had only worked on a temporary basis for overseas training camps. Gyeongju officials also couldn't track him down when the scandal blew up last week, days after Choi's death.

The triathlon body said it will seek criminal charges against Ahn, who is reportedly undergoing treatment for cancer.

Gyeongju Sports Association also said Tuesday that it will call on local prosecutors to charge Ahn with assault and sexual crimes. It said it has heard from member triathletes who say they were assaulted and sexually harassed by Ahn.

While most triathletes assumed Ahn was a doctor, he was merely brought on board as a trainer and a therapist.

According to audio recordings Choi had made of occasions when she was being abused by her staff, Ahn appeared to have initiated most of the physical contact. Choi's former teammates have also stepped forward. According to one athlete's account, Ahn allegedly struck multiple athletes while intoxicated during the team's camp in New Zealand in March 2019.

New allegations of sexual harassment by Ahn have also emerged, with one athlete accusing him of forcibly kissing her on her cheek and another saying Ahn claimed to be a university medical professor who had performed surgeries and touched athletes' bodies against their will for the ostensible purpose of treatment.

Members of the disciplinary committee for the Korea Triathlon Federation meet in Seoul on July 6, 2020, over an abuse scandal centered on the Gyeongju City Hall triathlon team coach and athletes. (Yonhap)

One athlete said Ahn entered the dorm room she was sharing with her teammate holding a bottle of wine after dinner.

The triathlon body made an unusual move to hand down lengthy bans on Monday before the three figures were criminally charged or indicted. It said it felt allegations made by multiple athletes carried considerably more credibility than the denials by the three.

The federation's disciplinary committee said Kim and the two athletes facing accusations appeared to have received some legal advice beforehand, based on the way they were denying charges and how they tried to steer clear of any wording that could incriminate them in court later. They had also denied everything during a meeting of a parliamentary committee on sports earlier Monday at the National Assembly.

For instance, the athlete who received a 10-year ban was in full denial mode, despite accounts by Choi that he was physically and verbally abusive on her and her teammates. One committee member said the athlete wasn't even remotely contrite and said he was being wrongfully accused.

Asked if he wanted to apologize to Choi and her family, the athlete said, "I have nothing to apologize for because I didn't hit anyone."

With circumstances that led to Choi's death having become a national story, the South Korean sports community is facing its latest moment of reckoning. This is far from the first abuse scandal in Korean sports, and it is serving as a reminder that the country still has a long way to go to eliminate the abusive culture that has been pervasive in sports.

The national sports community has balked at outside authorities' attempts to reform, but it hasn't yet proven capable of cleaning up itself. The triathlon body's preemptive action in handing down lifetime bans Monday is a start.

The late South Korean triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon receives a gold medal at the 2013 National Martine Sports Games in Ulsan, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul, in these photos provided by Choi's surviving family on July 2, 2020. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)


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