South Korea’s Olympic body said Thursday it is considering easing its eligibility rules for athletes entering international competitions, which would allow banned former Olympic swimming champion Park Tae-hwan a chance at qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
The organization is reviewing whether its rule that bans athletes suspended for doping from competing with the national team for an additional three years after the end of their suspensions is unfair or excessive, Korean Olympic Committee official Park Dong-hee said.
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Park Tae-hwan, who won the 400-meter freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, received an 18-month ban from world swimming governing body FINA on Monday after testing positive for testosterone in an out-of-competition drug test. The KOC’s current rule, which was introduced last year, prevents Park from competing in Rio. The FINA ban began retroactively the day of the positive test in early September and will expire on March 2, 2016.
"We will never bend our rules for the interest of an individual athlete, but it is true that the suspension of Park Tae-hwan triggered a debate on whether the rule is legally appropriate," Park Dong-hee said.
The KOC’s competition and disciplinary committees will discuss the rule before the organization’s board of directors makes a decision on it, a process that normally takes about three months, he added.
Park Tae-hwan is the only South Korean swimmer who to have won an Olympic medal and has been one of the most popular athletes in the country.
The recent doping scandal appears to have damaged Park’s public image irrevocably. In suspending Park, FINA also took away the six medals he won in last year’s Asian Games in the South Korean town of Incheon, which had even named the swimming venue for the games after Park.
Incheon official Lee Jae-keun said that the city may consider renaming the Park Tae Hwan Swimming Pool if the public opinion on Park continues to deteriorate.
Following the announcement of his suspension, Park’s management released a statement apologizing for the public disappointment caused by the scandal.
Lee Kee-heung, president of the Korean Swimming Federation, said he has demanded Park to personally address the public in a news conference. Lee added that Park has expressed a desire to compete in Rio, which he sees as an opportunity for redemption.
When the positive test was made public in January, Park’s representatives blamed it on an injection administered by a local hospital, which offered him free chiropractic and other treatments in July.
Park told investigators he was given the injection without knowing what specific substances it contained, while the hospital said it didn’t know testosterone was a prohibited substance.
Park is the latest in a long list of accomplished swimmers to be handed doping bans recently, with Chinese rival Sun Yang — a two-time Olympic champion — having served a three-month suspension last year.