Posted : 2013-03-28 18:43
Updated : 2013-03-28 18:43

Park joins Incheon City

By Kim Tong-hyung

Park Tae-hwan addresses reporters after signing a deal to join the Incheon City swimming team at the Incheon City Hall Thursday. / Yonhap
Ending his desperate search for a financial backer, Olympian Park Tae-hwan says he is ready to focus fully on what he loves most ― swimming.

The 23-year-old, who became one of the country's most transcendent personalities in 2008 after winning an Olympic gold in swimming, a sport where Koreans previously had been anonymous, joined the Incheon City Hall swimming team Thursday.

He had been in a limbo struggling to find corporate sponsors after his deal with mobile-phone giant SK Telecom expired in September last year. This forced him to pay for his own training, including a six-week camp in Brisbane, Australia, earlier this year.

He also found himself at the center of controversy after the Korea Swimming Federation (KSF) in January decided not to grant him the 50 million won (about $45,000) reward that he had been expecting for his two silver medals won at last year's London Olympics.

The federation never clearly explained why it wasn't giving Park the expected reward, which was instead used to support younger athletes. However, sources close to the situation say that KSF officials fumed over Park's refusal to compete in a domestic event shortly after the London Games.

Park will now receive an annual salary paid by the Incheon city government, although the size of his pay wasn't disclosed. In a news conference that followed the signing ceremony, Park said he was relieved that he could now finally move on.

''After the Olympics, I felt empty and hurt,'' Park told journalists at the Incheon City Hall, referring to his conflict with the national swimming governing body.

''I went through some difficult times and now it seems that the good things are finally happening. I hope this good look extends to my performance on the pool.''

The controversy with the KSF took on a new twist earlier this month when Park appeared as a guest host on a television shopping channel pushing health supplements. These shows are often hosted by celebrities past their prime and in need of cash, and online message boards were soon overflowing with debate on whether Park was facing money issues. One fan even started a grass-root fundraising campaign last Monday, and two days later Samsung Electronics signed him as a spokesman for its smartphones.

''I avoid the Internet. I almost never read newspapers,'' Park said. ''I am just hoping all these squabbles will come to an end.''

Under public criticism, the KSF said it will reopen discussions to give the 50 million won reward Park originally earned for his performance in London. Park doesn't seem too interested and said he will donate the money if the federation decides to give it to him.

Incheon will host the Asian Games in 2014 and is building the provisionally named Munhak Swimming Pool. The city said it may be re-named the "Park Tae-hwan Swimming Arena" before the Asian Games.

Park became the first Korean to win an Olympic swimming medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, claiming the 400-meter freestyle gold and later adding silver in the 200-meter freestyle. In London, he won silver in both the 200-meter and the 400-meter freestyle races. Park also has six Asian Games gold medals so far,

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