By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
With charismatic stars such as Apolo Anton Ohno, the United States has been a top contender in short track speedskating since the sport known as roller derby on ice joined the Olympics in 1992.
If things don’t change, and quickly, that won’t be the case at the Sochi Games.
With the next Winter Olympics less than a year away, the American program is mired in scandal and coming off its worst performance at the world championships in nearly a decade.
The U.S. Olympic Committee is so concerned about this staple of winter success that it has started discussions with U.S. Speedskating, looking for ways to improve performance in time to salvage at least some success in 2014.
At the moment, the only short track headlines are coming off the ice — none of them good.
“I am worried about the politics of the sport,” Katherine Reutter, who won two medals at the Vancouver Olympics but was forced to retire because of injuries, said Monday. “The skaters try to remove themselves from it as much as possible. But honestly, you can’t have all that’s going on right now going on and block it out completely.”
That was never more apparent than this past weekend at the world championships in Hungary.
For the first time since 2004, the U.S. team failed to win a medal at worlds. No one finished higher than fifth in an individual event (J.R. Celski in the men’s 500 meters). The top finishers in the overall standings were Jessica Smith, 14th on the women’s side, and Chris Creveling, a distant 16th for the men.
What a far cry from the American performance in the 2010 Vancouver Games, where a team led by Ohno and Reutter claimed a total of six medals — two silvers and four bronzes — to trail only powerhouse South Korea in the total rankings.
“We are concerned about speedskating,” said Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC. “Candidly, their performance this winter on the short track side has not been as good as it has been in recent years.”
He declined to be more specific about the talks with U.S. Speedskating, but the national governing body has been hampered by budget woes — comedian Stephen Colbert famously stepped in to help raise funds before Vancouver — and reports of organizational infighting.
Last week, a group of short track skaters filed a grievance claiming U.S. Speedskating was incapable of carrying out its financial and managerial requirements as a governing body. They asked the USOC to provide close oversight of the organization until a hearing is held.
“In our opinion, things with U.S. Speedskating have only gotten worse,” their attorney, Edward Williams, wrote in a letter to Blackmun.
U.S. Speedskating executive director Mark Greenwald declined a request for an interview Monday. Short track head coach Guy Thibault, who took over the embattled program in December, was traveling from Hungary and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Some decline was inevitable after Ohno, the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history, did everything but officially announce his retirement. He quit competing after Vancouver to, among other things, run in marathons and do two stints on “Dancing With The Stars.”
While Ohno continues to insist there’s a chance he’ll compete in Russia, it seems highly unlikely that a skater who’ll be 31 by the next Olympics could have much success after such a long layoff.
Then there’s Reutter, who seemed poised for stardom after winning a silver and a bronze in 2010, then adding a World Cup title the following year. Persistent back problems forced her to undergo a pair of hip surgeries. She had hoped to come back in time for Sochi, but the pain never let up.
Last month, Reutter announced her retirement from skating at age 24.
But the most troubling issues for short track have nothing to do with Ohno’s indecision or Reutter’s retirement. Last fall, head coach Jae Su Chun was accused by a dozen national team members of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. He also was alleged to have ordered speedskater Simon Cho to sabotage the skates of a Canadian rival.
Chun denied all allegations, and other members of the team came to his defense. The coach and his top assistant agreed to resign from the organization and accept a suspension through the Sochi Games, but the opposing factions have struggled to come together. Cho is still awaiting possible disciplinary action, and the grievance only adds to the off-ice turmoil.
“The best way to move forward is to have a common vision,” Reutter said. “Even one new piece of bad news starts taking away from the notion that we’re all moving toward one place together.”
Making matters worse, the sport has been tarnished by a sexual abuse scandal.
Skater Bridie Farrell came forward with stunning allegations against Olympic medalist and former U.S. Speedskating President Andy Gabel, accusing him of an improper sexual relationship in the 1990s when she was 15 and he was 33. On Friday, a more prominent former skater, two-time Olympic short track medalist Nikki Meyer, told The Associated Press she was raped by Gabel when she was 15.
Gabel, a Hall of Famer, denied forcing himself on anyone but acknowledged making mistakes and apologized for “crossing that line.” He has resigned from both U.S. Speedskating and the International Skating Union.
Meyer, now 37, said the sport is finally having to deal with some long-simmering issues.
“Everybody is talking about poor short track speedskating, it’s another negative thing on short track,” she said. “Seriously? There’s been negativity since before I came into the sport, and it’s been going on since then. It’s just been hidden here and there. You can only hide so much. Eventually, things are going to come out.”
In January, Ohno told the AP he was trying to stay out of the split involving Chun and the national skaters. But the eight-time medalist acknowledged that problems in team unity could definitely hurt at the Sochi Games.
“It’s too close to the games to be messing around with that. Athletes have to be focused,” he said. “If the team is not completely cohesive and bonded, it won’t perform as well.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this report.