2012/08/13 08:01 KST
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(Olympics) S. Korea finds self at center of controversies in London

By Yoo Jee-ho
LONDON, Aug. 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korean athletes wowed the crowd at the London Olympics with their medal-winning performances. But they also made headlines with other, at times less flattering, issues on and off the field.

   In the opening week, South Korea found itself at the center of high-profile judging disputes. First, freestyle swimmer Park Tae-hwan, the 400-meter freestyle gold medalist from Beijing, was disqualified for a false start in his 400m heat. Just hours later, however, officials reinstated Park following South Korean appeals. But the emotional roller coaster ride might have taken a toll on Park -- enough to make him shed tears of frustration after he finished second behind Sun Yang of China.

   In the quarterfinals of men's under-66 kg judo, South Korean Cho Jun-ho had a victory snatched away from him in a five-minute span.

   He was at first declared the winner over Masashi Ebinuma of Japan with a unanimous decision, as a referee and two judges all raised blue flags to indicate the win for the South Korean in blue uniform. But a referees director from the International Judo Federation (IJF) stepped in and consulted with the judges, who, after about five minutes, handed the match to Ebinuma.

   According to the IJF, this marked the first time officials on the field of play had been overruled on a flag decision.

   Cho still picked up a bronze medal through repechage. In a twist of fate, Ebinuma went on to lose his semifinal bout and shared the bronze with Cho.

   But even a bigger controversy came from fencing, in an episode that may go down in the Olympic annals as "The Clock That Never Moved."

This montage shows, clockwise from left, epee fencer Shin A-lam reacting to her defeat; officials reversing decision against South Korean judoka Cho Jun-ho to give the victory to Japanese judoka Masashi Ebinuma; and freestyle swimmer Park Tae-hwan. Shin, Cho and Park were all central figures to high-profile officiating controversies at the London Olympics. (Yonhap)

Female epee fencer Shin A-lam pushed the favored German, Britta Heidemann, to the sudden-death extra time in the semifinals. With the clock showing one second remaining, the two fencers had three simultaneous hits. Though epee fencing awards points for simultaneous touches, Shin and Heidemann needed the clear first touch for the sudden-death point.

   In fencing, simultaneous hits stop the clock, usually after at least one second has passed. But in this bout, the clock never moved after the first two exchanges. Then after the third, the clock went down to zero but was reset to the one-second mark.

   If the match had ended tied at 5-5, Shin would have been declared the winner because judges had deemed her a more aggressive fencer. But still alive in the match with the aid of a timekeeping mishap, Heidemann lunged for the decisive hit.

   Only then the clock ran out.

   South Koreans argued that the three exchanges couldn't possibly have taken place in a span of one second, and the last remaining tick should have run down after one or two exchanges.

   The teary Shin staged a sit-down protest, not ready to accept her defeat by leaving the piste, before being escorted away after an hour. The International Fencing Federation (FIE) later rejected South Korea's appeal because it couldn't "change a question of fact."

   Lee Kee-heung, head of the South Korean delegation, said while an apparent timekeeping error cost Shin a victory and a bid for gold, South Korea is still responsible for not taking proper steps to appeal.

   In individual fencing, the athlete is supposed to appeal rulings on the field of play. But in Shin's case, her coach, Shim Jae-sung, made the argument for the fencer.

   After the dust settled, the International Olympic Committee turned away South Korea's pursuit of a joint medal for Shin, while the FIE offered to present Shin with a special award after the Olympics. Lee said the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) would have consultation with the government regarding any compensation for Shin.

   But Shin may not need such a consolation prize, because she went on to win an actual medal. She and the rest of the epee team took the silver medal behind China for the sixth fencing medal for South Korea in London.

   Shin's was a feel-good story of great personal redemption. What transpired on badminton courts for South Korean female doubles players, however, was anything but.

   Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na and Ha Jung-eun and Kim Min-jun were among eight players who were disqualified from the Olympics for their role in a match-throwing scandal. Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang of China and Greysia Polii and Meiliana Jauhari of Indonesia were the others.

   These players were accused of trying to lose their group stage matches intentionally to set up favorable draws in the knockout round. This was the first Olympics in which the group play preceded the elimination stage in badminton.

   The four South Koreans, plus their assistant coach Kim Moon-soo, were sent home after the disqualification ruling. Lee, the chief delegate, called their behavior "unacceptable under any circumstances" and said further investigation is in order.

   "We will carry out more investigations after the Olympics," Lee said. "After that, we will take any steps as necessary."

   That wasn't the end of the scandalous Olympics for South Korea. Football midfielder Park Jong-woo was forced to sit out the medal ceremony last Saturday, where he was to pick up his bronze medal. South Korea beat Japan 2-0 to win its first-ever football medal, but the International Olympic Committee told the KOC to keep the player off the podium after he displayed a political message in his post-match celebration.

   The sign, which had been thrown in from the stands, read, "Dokdo Is Our Territory." It was in reference to South Korea's easternmost islets to which Japan has long laid claims. The bronze medal victory came hours after President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit to Dokdo, a move that further raised diplomatic tensions between the countries.

   The Olympic Charter prohibits political statements by athletes. FIFA, the global football governing body, has also asked the KOC for an investigation. South Korean officials have said Park acted "in the heat of the moment" and carrying around the message wasn't a premeditated action.