Olympic Swimmer Park Tae-hwan Claims Former Vice Sports Minister Blackmailed Him
TOKYO, Nov. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korean swimming icon Park Tae-hwan said Monday that he only thought about competing at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games when a high-ranking government official approached and allegedly tried to blackmail him to give up on the Olympics.
Park's camp recently claimed that Kim Chong, former vice sports minister, tried to force him into not participating in the Rio Games following his doping suspension.
"Back then, I was scared because he (Kim Chong) was in a high-ranking position," Park told reporters in Tokyo where he competed the Asian Swimming Championships. "But I just wanted to go to the Olympics."
Park, the 400m freestyle gold medalist at the 2008 London Olympics, served an 18-month doping suspension that ended in March this year. When it ended, he was ineligible for the Rio Games because of a Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) rule barring athletes from representing the country for three years after the end of their doping suspension.
Park challenged the KOC rule at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which upheld Park's appeal on July 8, the final day to submit Rio swimming entries. He went on to compete at the Olympics in Brazil, but came home without winning any medals.
According to Park's camp, Kim said in a meeting in May that he will help Park to get sponsorships if the swimmer gives up his Olympic dreams, but will put him at a "disadvantage" if Park continues to pursue the Olympics.
Kim also said that he can also help Park to become a professor at the swimmer's alma mater Dankook University in Seoul in the future. Park's side is planning to unveil a recorded conversation during the meeting later this week.
"There were talks about corporate sponsorships and college professorship, but it didn't really get through to me," he said. "Many thoughts went through my head and I felt the weight and responsibility. But what was important for me was to compete at the Olympics."
Kim is one of the government officials who was questioned by prosecutors over his alleged involvement in the influence-peddling scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye's confidante that has been rocking the country. He resigned from his post last month in the wake of the scandal.
Kim, former professor in the department of sports industry at Seoul's Hanyang University, faces allegations that he gave business favors to Choi Soon-sil, suspected of having been a behind-the-scenes power broker in the current administration. In return, he is accused of asking Choi to influence the posting of officials.
Park couldn't make it out of the heats in the 100m, 200m and 400m free at the Rio Games and returned home empty-handed. The 27-year-old said he doesn't want to make excuses for his results in Brazil, but said the incident with Kim could have influenced his performance.
"The Olympics is the stage where the best athletes in the world represent their respective countries and only focus on their competition," he said. "I had to be in best form, but I had lots of things to think about other than swimming. I now regret that I wasn't mentally strong at the moment."
Park, however, showed he still got international competitiveness. He will leave the Asian Swimming Championships with four gold medals and one bronze medal in six races. It was Park's first international race since getting shut out of medals at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.
Park won the 200m free on Thursday and the 400m free on the following day. He then topped the 100m and 1,500m free on Saturday. He closed the championships with a bronze medal in the men's 4x100 freestyle relay event on Sunday.
"I'm happy to wrap up the event very well," he said. "It really felt good to hear the national anthem at the podium."
Park, who also has two silver medals in the Summer Games, said his next goal is to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
"Right now, I'm working hard to compete at the World Swimming Championships next year," he aid. "If I can focus on my training and have a good working environment, I want to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. Since many people are supporting me, I just want to put forth my best efforts."