South Korea's beloved world of speed skating rocked by sex abuse scandal

SEOUL (Reuters) - More than 246,000 people have signed a petition demanding a longer jail term for a South Korean former speed skating coach convicted of assaulting an Olympic champion who has since brought fresh charges of sexual abuse when she was just 17.

The new accusations are the latest to surface since South Korea’s #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault ensnared a number of high-profile political, entertainment, and religious figures last year.

The case has made headlines in South Korea, where speed skating has a huge and devoted following. South Korea has won 24 gold medals since speed skating became an Olympic sport in 1992, more than any other country.

Former national short track speed skating coach Cho Jae-beom was convicted of assaulting two-time Olympic champion Shim Suk-hee, 21, and jailed for 10 months in September.

He punched and kicked her until “she felt she might die” during training before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, according to Shim’s testimony on Dec. 17, as reported by the Seoul Shinmun newspaper.

Last month, Shim also accused Cho of sexual assault of a minor and a court decided on Thursday to postpone a ruling on an appeal against the original conviction and hold a hearing on Jan. 23 to consider the new accusations, a court official said.

Shim alleges Cho had sexually assaulted her since 2014, when she was 17, according to a press release from her lawyers, whose office referred questions to the release. Shim is currently in closed-to-the-press training for the ISU Speed Skating World Cup.

Cho denies all the sexual abuse allegations, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported on Friday, citing his lawyer, although he admitted the original assault charges. The Suwon Detention Center where he is detained denied access to reporters. He has not been charged on the sex abuse allegations.

An online petition to the South Korean presidential office asking for “severe punishment” for Cho on the original assault charges has been signed by 246,667 people as of Friday, saying a jail term of 10 months is not enough.

Shim won gold medals at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics for the short track ladies’ 3000m relay and has a total of 21 gold medals from international competitions, the Civic Network for Justice in Sports said.

Yeo Jun-hyung, a former national short track coach, told reporters on Thursday that his civic group, Representatives of Solidarity for Young Skaters, had identified about five or six suspected cases of assault in the sport, and in two of the cases, victims had confirmed they had been sexually molested.

The Korean Sport and Olympic Committee said in a statement on Thursday it will inspect all national athletes’ villages and nominate female officials and human rights counselors to strengthen communication and protection of athletes.

Editing by Nick Macfie