South Korean short track speed skater Shim Suk-hee, who was at the center of public sentiment for revealing physical and sexual abuse by her former coach, has been dropped from the national team over controversial text messages, putting her hopes of taking part in the Winter Olympics in jeopardy.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Shim had accused one of her national team coaches, Cho Jae-beom, in 2018 of rape and sexual assault. Cho was sentenced to 13 years in prison on September 10 according to the Suwon High Court.
But the text messages Shim exchanged with another former national team coach in 2018, which South Korea’s national news agency Yonhap says have been leaked to the media from evidence Cho’s lawyer submitted for the trial, have been a source of controversy with months to go until the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
In text messages exchanged with an unnamed women’s national team coach during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Seoul-based online news outlet Dispatch reported that the two mocked Shim’s teammates Choi Min-jeong and Kim A-lang, whom she had competed alongside in the 3,000m relay.
Shim has apologized for “disappointing and scarring many people with my immature words, behavior and attitude at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics,” in a statement released by her management Galaxia SM.
“I especially would like to say sorry from the bottom of my heart to Kim A-lang, Choi Min-jeong and the coaching staff who would have been shocked by the news,” she added in the statement.
In the text messages, Shim said she cheered on China’s Qu Chuyu at the women’s 500m quarterfinals at the 2018 Winter Olympics, instead of her teammate Choi.
When Choi cried in an interview after being disqualified in the 500m final, Shim texted: “That interview was rubbish.”
Shim even said that the South Korean short track 3,000m relay women’s team should have been disqualified after winning gold with her teammates.
“I’m embarrassed that we won a gold,” Shim texted to the coach, who replied: “I’m embarrassed.”
Choi’s management company, All That Sports, released a statement on Tuesday citing its CEO Koo Dong-hoi’s concern over the “unpatriotic act” Shim could perform at next year’s Olympics after she had supported a Chinese skater at the previous Games.
“Supporting a national teammate’s Chinese opponent at a public space, at an Olympics held in our country, despite her teammate competing, cannot be understood with common sense as she’s a national athlete with a Taegeuk [Korean flag] mark on her chest,” Koo said.
Shim said she was mentally and physically unstable at the time due to former coach Cho’s abuse, which gave her concussion symptoms.
“I couldn’t control the anger in me, so I’m still reflecting on showing an aggressive attitude and immature side of me to others,” she said, citing Cho’s abuse.
Possible race fixing
On top of mocking her teammates, Shim is also accused of alleged race fixing at the short track women’s 1,000m final in Pyeongchang.
Shim and the unnamed coach mention “Bradbury” several times in their text messages days before the final. The coach texted: “If you have strength, let’s make Bradbury,” to which Shim agreed.
Steven Bradbury is an Australian speed skater renowned for winning the most unexpected gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He was left to cross the finish line alone as all the other competitors in the race tumbled and fell on the ice.
The two talked about making a female Bradbury several times in their text messages.
During the 1,000m final at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Shim and Choi tangled and collided on the ice as they raced on the outer course of the track. Choi finished 4th and Shim was disqualified, leading to speculation in light of the text messages that she may have deliberately caused the collision.
But Shim, in her statement, fully denied the possibility that she was race fixing.
“I’d like to clarify the part in the article that stated that I fell down intentionally at the Olympics, referring to Bradbury, is not true at all,” Shim said, while apologizing for scarring her teammates.
Choi’s representatives requested that the Korea Skating Union (KSU) and the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee (KSOC) look into the case and verify the facts regarding possible intentional collision.
Koo stated: “Choi Min-jeong had not only missed her promising chance to win a gold after colliding with her teammate, but she was also seriously injured … as she hurt her knee ligaments in the collision.”
He added that if Shim and the coach did try and deliberately engineer a situation similar to Bradbury’s, the matter should be considered a “criminal act” that harmed Choi.
Separated from the national team
Shim became a national icon after sharing her experience of sexual abuse.
But now the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is postponing its plan to honor Shim at its National Sports Award ceremony on Friday until a final conclusion is made from the investigation by the KSU and KSOC, the ministry official confirmed to CNN.
The KSU temporarily banned Shim from the national training center on Monday, separating her from the rest of the national team.
“We think it’s difficult [for Shim and the national team] to stay and train together … We need to investigate the issues, so we decided that we shouldn’t hastily keep them in the national team together right now,” the KSU official told CNN.
Shim has been dropped from the national team ahead of the International Skating Union’s short track speed skating world cup, set to kick off in Beijing next week, but she could still compete in the 2022 Beijing Olympics if the investigation finds no fault.
The KSU and KSOC are currently forming an investigation committee that would begin looking into the case by checking the facts and listening to the stories of the individuals involved.
Since the committee itself does not have legal force, it will mainly focus on game operations like possible intentional collision, the KSU official said.
Shim will reflect on her “past immature attitude” and strive – as she has been doing – to show a better self, she said in the statement where she emphasized that there is no connection between her text messages and the 1,000m final.