SEOUL — Park Tae-hwan, disgraced South Korean Olympic swimming champion, on Friday apologized to the public for his recent doping scandal, saying he was ashamed of himself for letting down so many people.
Park held a press conference at a Seoul hotel, his first public appearance since FINA, the international swimming federation, handed down an 18-month suspension Monday after he’d tested positive for testosterone, a substance banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
FINA collected Park’s samples on Sept. 3 last year and his suspension began retroactively on that day. It will end on March 2, 2016.
Park, a national icon who remains the only South Korean with an Olympic swimming gold, had previously argued that a Seoul-based doctor had given him an injection without fully disclosing that it could contain a banned substance. The doctor was later indicted on charges of professional negligence and will stand trial next month.
On Friday, the 25-year-old reiterated that he’d been assured by the doctor in question that his injection would be clean, but acknowledged that it didn’t absolve him of his own responsibility.
“I’d like to apologize to the people for causing so much trouble with this unacceptable incident,” Park said, fighting back tears as he read from a statement.
“When I first learned of the test result, I felt something must have been wrong. But then I realized I should have been more careful. Regardless of reasons or processes, I think it’s my fault that things have come to this point.”
Park said he was so devastated about the positive test last year that he briefly contemplated retirement but added it was “inappropriate” for him to talk about his future after disappointing so many people.
“I think it’s important for me to first apologize to the people I’ve let down and take time for some self-introspection,” Park said.
“Swimming is everything to me. It’s all I’ve ever done and not being able to compete is hugely shocking. It’s as if my whole life has been taken away from me in an instant. It makes it difficult for me to think about retirement at this point.”
FINA also stripped Park of all medals earned after Sept. 3. The suspension cost Park six medals he’d captured at the Incheon Asian Games, when all swimming races were held at an arena bearing Park’s name. Three of those medals came in relays, and Park’s teammates in those races will lose their medals because of Park’s suspension.
Park said attending the FINA doping hearing on Monday was “by far the most difficult and nervous moment in my life.”
“Ever since I learned of the positive test (in November last year), I’ve been in a living hell,” he added. “I was hurt and devastated. Throughout my career, I never once resorted to drugs and never relied on anything other than training to compete. I wondered, ‘Why did something like this happen to me?’ I wished I could turn back the clock.”
Park also said he will willingly deal with any criticism hurled his way.
“Some people have asked me if I felt it unfair to be labeled a drug cheat, and others have encouraged me to come back even stronger than before,” the swimmer said. “And then there are those who think all the medals I’ve won so far are meaningless after this drug test. I will take everything to heart. I think it’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life.”
While his suspension will end before the start of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, it remains unclear whether Park, the first and only South Korean with an Olympic swimming medal, will be able to compete in his fourth Summer Games.
Under a rule instituted last July by the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC), an athlete who has been suspended for a drug-related offense is ineligible for any national team for three years, starting from the day the suspension ends.
Park’s situation has sparked debate over the potential double punishment of the KOC’s rule. Critics of the rule say Park shouldn’t be penalized for the same offense and that he deserves a second chance, given his contribution to the sport. On the other hand, there are those who believe Park shouldn’t receive any special treatment and the rule should be applied to all athletes equally.
The swimmer said he doesn’t want to seek any special treatment.
“If I am ever given the opportunity to race at the Olympics, then I will endure whatever rigorous training that lies ahead,” Park said.
“But I think it’s not appropriate for me to talk about my Olympic participation. I’ve let down so many people, and I believe it’s only right for me to take plenty of time to reflect on myself.”
Park added that he will try to give back to the people who’ve supported him through thick and thin.
“I realize clearly that everything I’ve accomplished as a swimmer must not be taken for granted,” he said. “I understand how precious my career has been, and I will spend time serving the community. My objective is not to become an Olympian or to win medals. It is to become someone who’s not ashamed of himself.”