SEOUL - The 18-month suspension handed to South Korea's four-time Olympic swimming medallist Park Tae Hwan for failing a dope test could see him miss the 2016 Olympic Games, even though the ban ends before the Rio event.
A Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) official yesterday confirmed that Park, a national icon in South Korea, could fall foul of a new rule barring any athlete suspended for doping from competing with the national team for a period of three years.
"Should the rule be applied as it is, Park would be unable to take part in next year's Olympic Games," the official, who declined to be identified, told Agence France-Presse.
The rule, instituted by the KOC last July, states that the three-year ban on representing South Korea in competition begins on the date the doping suspension expires.
Park's 18-month ban was handed down by world swimming body Fina on Monday.
The 25-year-old swimmer, known as "Marine Boy" in South Korea, tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid at an out-of-competition control before the Asian Games on Sept 3 last year.
The ban for his first doping violation will run until March 2 next year, which rules him out of this year's world championships in Kazan, Russia, from July 17 to Aug 2.
The KOC official stressed that the three-year rule had yet to be tested and added that the committee had not taken any position on whether it should be applied to Park.
"There is always room for flexibility," he said.
Park has 21 days to appeal against the Fina suspension with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), although Fina executive director Cornel Marculescu told Agence France-Presse he did not expect the swimmer to challenge the decision.
All Park's results after Sept 3 last year have also been cancelled, which means handing back the three bronze medals he won at last year's Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
The positive test sent shock waves through the sport in South Korea, where prosecutors last month announced charges against a doctor for giving Park an injection without disclosing that it contained testosterone, which is banned.
Park blamed the injection - administered last July - for the positive drug test on urine samples he provided in September.
Park - who has six Asian Games titles to his name - won 400m freestyle gold and 200m freestyle silver at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, becoming South Korea's first Olympic swimming medallist.
He also won silver in both events at the 2012 London Olympics, along with 400m gold in the world championships in 2007 and 2011.
But Park, who began swimming at the age of five in a bid to control his asthma, has struggled to repeat that form and failed to win a title at his home Asian Games last year, competing in a pool that bore his name.