Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.

Since 2010, Berkes has focused mostly on investigative projects, beginning with the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia in which 29 workers died. Since then, Berkes has reported on coal mine and workplace safety, including the safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine, other failures in mine safety regulation, the resurgence of the deadly coal miners disease black lung and weak enforcement of grain bin safety as worker deaths reached a record high. Berkes was part of the team that collaborated with the Center for Public Integrity in 2011 resulting in Poisoned Places, a series exploring weaknesses in air pollution regulation by states and EPA.

Before moving into his current role, Berkes spent a decade serving as NPR's first rural affairs correspondent. His reporting focused on the politics, economics and culture of rural America.

Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reported on the stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005 and 2006, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina, emphasizing impacts in rural areas. His rural reporting also included the effects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military families and service men and women from rural America, including a disproportionate death rate from this community. During multiple presidential and congressional campaigns, Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on those races.

Berkes has also covered eight summer and winter Olympic games, beginning with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, through the 2012 games in London. His reporting in 1998 about Salt Lake City's Olympic bid helped transform a largely local story about suspicious payments to the relatives of members of the International Olympic Committee into an international ethics scandal that resulted in Federal and Congressional investigations.

Berkes' ongoing reporting of Olympic politics and the Olympic Games has made him a resource to other news organizations, including The PBS Newshour, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, Al Jazeera America and others. When the Olympics finally arrived in Salt Lake City, Berkes' coverage included rides in a bobsled and on a luge sled in attempts to help listeners understand how those sports work. Berkes was part of the reporting team that earned NPR a 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting for coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

In 1981, Berkes pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He's traveled thousands of miles since then, to every corner of the region, driving ranch roads, city streets, desert washes, and mountain switchbacks, to capture the voices and sounds that give the region its unique identity.

Berkes' stories are heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. His analysis of regional issues was featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Berkes has also been a substitute host of Morning Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.

An easterner by birth, Berkes moved west in 1976, and soon became a volunteer at NPR member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. His reports on the 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens were regular features on NPR and prompted his hiring by the network. Berkes is sometimes best remembered for his story that provided the first detailed account of the attempt by Morton Thiokol engineers to stop the fatal 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Berkes teamed with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling for the report, which earned a number of major national journalism awards. In 1989, Berkes followed up with another award-winning report that examined NASA's efforts to redesign the Space Shuttle's rocket boosters.

Berkes has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, the Mormon faith, western water issues, mass shootings and more. His work has been honored by many organizations, including the American Psychological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes has also trained news reporters, consulted with radio news departments, and served as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. In 1997, he was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University.

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National Security
1:58 am
Mon June 10, 2013

Amid Data Controversy, NSA Builds Its Biggest Data Farm

A National Security Agency data center is under construction in Bluffdale, Utah. When this data center opens in the fall, it will be the largest spy data center for the NSA.
George Frey EPA/LANDOV

Originally published on Mon June 10, 2013 9:01 am

As privacy advocates and security experts debate the validity of the National Security Agency's massive data gathering operations, the agency is putting the finishing touches on its biggest data farm yet.

The gargantuan $1.2 billion complex at a National Guard base 26 miles south of Salt Lake City features 1.5 million square feet of top secret space. High-performance NSA computers alone will fill up 100,000 square feet.

The Utah Data Center is a data farm that will begin harvesting emails, phone records, text messages and other electronic data in September.

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Around the Nation
3:03 pm
Fri June 7, 2013

The Iceman Swimmeth, Chanting 'F Cancer'

Goody Tyler, a schoolteacher, earned the "ice man" label for swimming a mile in 41-degree water in the Great Salt Lake. He credits that swim and workouts in the lake for helping him withstand the tedium of chemotherapy while being treated for cancer.
Wanda Gayle

Goody Tyler isn't just any hard-core Great Salt Lake swimmer. He's a certified "ice swimmer." In December, Tyler swam 1 mile in the lake when the water temperature was only 41 degrees, the maximum temperature for an official "ice swim."

"You're only allowed to wear one cap, one pair of goggles and a Speedo," Tyler says. "And that's it."

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Around the Nation
3:02 pm
Fri June 7, 2013

Salt, Flies, Pickled Tongues: A Perfect Great Salt Lake Swim

Swimmers begin a 1-mile race in the Great Salt Lake in June 2012. The mountains of Stansbury Island rise in the background.
Connie Hubbard

Originally published on Fri June 7, 2013 7:29 pm

It's the "liquid lie of the desert," as writer Terry Tempest Williams describes it, a vast inland sea so salty it triggers retching when swallowed. Brine shrimp swarm its waters and brine flies blanket the shore. In the right wind and weather its putrid smell reaches Salt Lake City neighborhoods 16 miles away. Storms churn up waves that rival ocean swells.

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The Two-Way
2:16 pm
Fri June 7, 2013

Grain Deaths Fall In 2012 But Industry Share Grows

John Poole NPR

A new report from grain safety researchers at Purdue University says eight people died while trapped in grain last year, another steep drop from the record year of 2010, when 31 people lost their lives in grain bins and other grain storage facilities.

The continued decline in incidents since 2010 is credited to drier and smaller harvests since then. The grain stored in bins in 2010 was generally harvested wet and tended to spoil and clog. Workers and farmers went into bins to unclog grain and were trapped in a "quicksand" effect common in flowing grain.

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The Two-Way
6:12 pm
Tue June 4, 2013

U.S. Skater Will Boycott Disciplinary Hearing On Tampering

U.S. speedskater Simon Cho, seen here in 2012, will boycott a hearing in Germany over an incident in which he tampered with a Canadian athlete's skate. Cho says his coach ordered him to tamper with the equipment.
Rick Bowmer AP

Originally published on Wed June 5, 2013 10:38 am

U.S. Olympic speedskater Simon Cho will boycott a hearing next week that could result in his receiving a lifetime ban from the sport, NPR has learned.

Cho is the short-track bronze medalist (Vancouver, 2010) who in October confessed to sabotaging the skate of a Canadian athlete during an international meet in Poland in 2011.

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The Two-Way
10:40 am
Tue May 21, 2013

Big Changes At U.S. Speedskating Body, But Scandals Linger

Speedskaters practiced for the U.S. Single Distance Short Track Speedskating Championships in Kearns, Utah, last year.
Rick Bowmer AP

Originally published on Tue May 21, 2013 11:56 am

Rebellious athletes, drained budgets, dysfunctional management and a string of embarrassing scandals forced a major reorganization of U.S. Speedskating over the weekend.

The group governs a sport that has produced 85 Winter Olympic medals for the United States — more than any other sport. But persistent turmoil threatened continued success in the next Games, just nine months away in Sochi, Russia.

The changes leave USS with a smaller board and without numerous committees that have permitted parochial interests to meddle in the governance of the sport.

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Shots - Health News
12:51 pm
Fri May 17, 2013

Doctors Confirm Black Lung In Victims Of Mine Blast

A memorial at the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine represents the 29 coal miners who were killed in an explosion in 2010.
Jeff Gentner AP

Originally published on Mon May 20, 2013 4:20 pm

The tragic deaths of 29 coal miners in a massive explosion in 2010 have provided new evidence of a resurgence of the disease known as black lung.

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The Two-Way
3:33 pm
Wed May 8, 2013

Teen Charged With Homicide After Death Of Soccer Referee

Originally published on Wed May 8, 2013 4:34 pm

The 17-year-old soccer goalie who allegedly punched and killed a referee during a game in Utah last month faces a charge of "homicide by assault" and may be tried as an adult.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill sought the charge in a petition filed with a juvenile court Wednesday. Gill is also seeking to have the unidentified suspect certified as an adult.

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The Two-Way
12:37 pm
Fri April 26, 2013

On-The-Job Deaths Continue At Steady, Grim Pace

A construction site in San Mateo, Calif., earlier this month. There were 738 deaths of construction workers in the U.S. during 2011, the most of any single industry. The fatality rate per workers was higher, when taken together, in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting
Justin Sullivan Getty Images

Dying on the job continues at a steady pace according to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The fatal injury rate for American workers dropped slightly in 2011 — the most recent year with reported numbers — from 3.6 to 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers.

But 4,693 men, women and teenagers died at work. That's three more than the total number of lives lost on the job in 2010.

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The Two-Way
8:58 am
Tue April 16, 2013

The Cruelest Month: Boston Blasts Join List Of Dark Incidents

Oklahoma City Bombing: The Albert P. Murrah Federal Building shows the devastation caused by a fuel and fertilizer truck bomb on April 19, 1995. The blast killed 168 people and injured more than 500.
Bob Daemmrich AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Tue April 16, 2013 12:04 pm

Howard Berkes is an NPR correspondent based in Salt Lake City.

It may have been the dumbest thing I ever said. On April 19, 1999, I stood before an audience at Idaho State University in Pocatello, talking about the cruelest month. April, I pointed out, and April 19 in particular, have provided celebrated, infamous and sometimes horrific moments in our history.

What was it about the month, I wondered, or the time of year, that made April so meaningful and at times so cruel? Back then, the list was relatively short:

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The Two-Way
6:08 pm
Fri April 12, 2013

Rare On-The-Job Death For Avalanche Forecaster In Utah

Craig Patterson, 34, a seven-year veteran of avalanche forecasting for the Utah Department of Transportation.
Utah Department of Transportation

Dale Atkins has been tracking hundreds of avalanche deaths for years but the fatality report that arrived from Utah Friday morning was especially shocking.

"It's way too close to home," says Atkins, the Colorado-based president of the American Avalanche Association. "It's mind numbing...it's a slashing chill."

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The Two-Way
4:53 pm
Mon April 8, 2013

A Woman's Prayer Makes Mormon History

Jean A. Stevens conducts the morning session's closing prayer during the 183rd Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday, April 6, 2013, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer AP

Originally published on Mon April 8, 2013 5:16 pm

There was no formal acknowledgment of the historic moment Saturday when Jean Stevens stood at a dark wooden podium framed by potted plants and colorful flowers in the cavernous Mormon conference center in Salt Lake City.

"Our beloved father in heaven," she began, as 20,000 faithful and silent Mormons in the building listened, and as millions of others (according to Church officials) watched on television screens around the world.

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The Two-Way
2:24 pm
Fri March 29, 2013

New Federal Scrutiny In Wake Of NPR Grain Bin Reports

Will Piper and Annette Pacas visit the grave of Annette's son, Alex, at Oak Hill Cemetery in Mount Carroll, Ill. Piper says he hopes to raise money to replace the makeshift, plastic marker with a permanent gravestone.
John W. Poole NPR

Congress, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Justice Department are beginning to respond to the NPR-Center for Public Integrity Series on hundreds of persistent and preventable deaths in grain storage bins and weak enforcement by federal agencies.

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Buried In Grain
11:03 pm
Sat March 23, 2013

Fines Slashed In Grain Bin Entrapment Deaths

Friends and classmates of Wyatt Whitebread, Alex Pacas and Will Piper watch as rescuers work to free the boys from the bin (center) full of thousands of bushels of corn. Only Piper survived.
Alex T. Paschal AP

Originally published on Wed March 27, 2013 4:58 pm

The night before he died, Wyatt Whitebread couldn't stand the thought of going back to the grain bins on the edge of Mount Carroll, Ill.

The mischievous and popular 14-year-old had been excited about his first real job, he told Lisa Jones, the mother of some of his closest friends, as she drove him home from a night out for pizza. But nearly two weeks later he told her he was tired of being sent into massive storage bins clogged with corn.

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The Two-Way
11:10 am
Tue March 5, 2013

U.S. Speedskating Investigating Sexual Abuse Allegations

Speedskater Bridie Farrell competing last Friday in Kearns, Utah. Now 31, she says she was 15 when a much older teammate began sexually abusing her.
Rick Bowmer AP

Originally published on Tue March 5, 2013 2:17 pm

Yet another scandal has hit U.S. Speedskating (USS), which governs the sport with the biggest haul of winter Olympic medals for Team USA.

The USS board announced Monday night that it is investigating allegations of sexual abuse involving short track silver medalist Andy Gabel, now 48, who also once served as president of USS.

"U.S. Speedskating will not tolerate abuse of any kind and we intend to investigate these claims, and any others that arise, thoroughly," the group said in a written statement.

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The Two-Way
12:41 pm
Wed February 13, 2013

Center for Public Integrity: EPA Unaware Of Industry Ties On Cancer Review Panel

Originally published on Wed February 13, 2013 4:44 pm

Our investigative reporting colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) continue their look at the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of toxic pollution with a new report scrutinizing the agency's delay in announcing that "even a small amount of a chemical compound commonly found in tap water may cause cancer."

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The Two-Way
10:09 am
Wed February 6, 2013

Once-Secret 'Watch List' Of Alleged Polluters Under Review At EPA

"Poisoned Places," an NPR/Center for Public Integrity investigation.
NPR

The Environmental Protection Agency's once-secret "Watch List" of allegedly chronic polluters is under review by the EPA's inspector general.

The existence of the list was first disclosed by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and NPR in 2011 during a joint investigation of EPA's air pollution regulation. CPI's Jim Morris discovered the list and a CPI/NPR Freedom of Information Act request prompted its public release.

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The Two-Way
2:19 pm
Mon February 4, 2013

Report: W.Va. Fails To Enforce New Regs Designed To Prevent Mine Explosions

Originally published on Tue February 5, 2013 7:53 am

Ken Ward at The Charleston Gazette has a story worth reading about West Virginia's failure to enforce new coal mine dust standards prompted by the deadly explosion three years ago at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine.

Ward used the state's Freedom of Information Act to obtain and review mine safety inspections conducted by the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

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The Two-Way
1:28 pm
Thu January 17, 2013

Massey Mine Boss Sentenced; Feds Toughen Mine Safety Rule

Mine helmets and painted crosses were placed at the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine as a memorial to the 29 miners killed there.
Jeff Gentner AP

Nearly three years after a deadly mine explosion in West Virginia, a former Massey Energy mine superintendent has been sentenced to prison and federal regulators have toughened a regulation that could have helped prevent the disaster.

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The Two-Way
2:08 pm
Mon December 3, 2012

Salt Lake City Says It's 'Ready, Willing And Able' To Host Another Olympics

Among the stars of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was Team USA's Apolo Anton Ohno. The city and Utah want another chance to host the games.
Jacques DeMarthon AFP/Getty Images

Ten years after jumpstarting Mitt Romney's political career with a widely-praised Winter Olympics, officials in Utah say they're ready to do it all over again.

But there's no word on whether the unemployed Romney is interested in reprising his role as Salt Lake City Olympics chief. He would be 78, after all, when the 2026 games roll around. That's the earliest opportunity for a Winter Olympics in the United States.

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The Two-Way
9:11 am
Wed November 28, 2012

Mine Disaster Probe Leads To Conspiracy Charges Against Former Executive

Mine helmets and painted crosses at the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine, as a memorial to the 29 miners killed there.
Jeff Gentner AP

Originally published on Wed November 28, 2012 11:36 am

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia stepped higher up the corporate ladder at Massey Energy Wednesday with new criminal charges stemming from the investigation of the 2010 coal mine explosion that killed 29 workers.

David C. Hughart was president of Massey's Green Valley Resource Group, a major coal mining subsidiary based in Leivasy, W. Va., from 2000 to 2010.

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It's All Politics
3:47 pm
Wed November 7, 2012

After Romney's Loss, Mormons Lament What Might Have Been

Mormons line up outside the historic Salt Lake Temple for an annual conference in April 2010.
George Frey Getty Images

Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 9:43 am

Poor Chris Stewart. The former Air Force pilot had just won a landslide victory in his first bid for Congress in Utah, but the crowd of Republicans listening to his acceptance speech at a Salt Lake City hotel kept pointing to the massive television screen behind him.

"Do you want me to stop?" Stewart asked. "You would rather listen to Gov. Romney than to me, wouldn't you?"

Some in the crowd shouted "Yes!" and the sound of Romney's concession speech filled the room.

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Election 2012
11:37 pm
Mon October 15, 2012

Poll: Romney Has Large Lead In Rural Swing Counties

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns in Gilbert, S.C., earlier this year.
Charles Dharapak AP

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 3:16 pm

As Mitt Romney and President Obama get ready for their second debate, a new bipartisan survey shows a surge for Romney in a key voter group following their first debate Oct. 3.

The random cellphone and land line poll of 600 likely rural voters in nine battleground states Oct. 9-11 has Romney at 59 percent among the survey's respondents. Obama's support is now down to 37 percent among rural battleground voters, a plunge of 10 points from the actual rural vote in those states four years ago.

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The Two-Way
4:18 pm
Fri October 12, 2012

Embattled U.S. Speedskating Coach Responds To Resignation And Suspension

Originally published on Fri October 12, 2012 5:56 pm

A day after resigning under pressure from U.S. Speedskating, former head coach Jae Su Chun says he didn't report a tampering incident at an international meet last year to protect skater Simon Cho, who confessed to sabotaging a Canadian athlete's skate blade.

"I know I chose Simon over my own principles," Chun says in a written statement translated from Korean by a spokesman.

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The Two-Way
2:12 pm
Fri October 12, 2012

New Regulations Aimed At Black Lung Disease Appear To Be Stalled

Originally published on Sat October 13, 2012 11:37 am

Reporting by the Charleston Gazette this week suggests that the Obama administration's efforts to impose tough new limits on miners' exposure to coal dust have stalled.

The United Mine Workers Union suggests election year politics may be the reason.

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Sports
4:03 am
Fri October 5, 2012

U.S. Speedskater Admits To Sabotaging Rival's Skates

Simon Cho competes in the men's 500-meter finals at the 2011 ISU World Cup short track speedskating final in Dresden, Germany. He won the event.
Robert Michael AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 3:19 pm

American speedskater Simon Cho says what he did was "wrong" when he yielded to what he claims was persistent pressure from a coach to tamper with another skater's blades at the World Short Track Team Championships in Poland last year.

"Tampering with someone's skates is inexcusable," Cho told NPR in his first interview about the incident. "And I'm coming out now and admitting that I did this and acknowledging that what I did was wrong." The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune also spoke with Cho earlier this week after the NPR interview.

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The Two-Way
4:32 pm
Thu September 27, 2012

Skaters Detail Abuse And Sabotage Allegations As Racing Season Begins

Simon Cho of the U.S. celebrates during the 500 meter men's final race at the Short Track Speed Skating World Cup in Dresden in 2011.
Jens Meyer AP

Originally published on Thu October 4, 2012 4:18 pm

More than the ice is frosty at the Olympic Oval outside Salt Lake City this week, as short track speedskaters begin the 2012-2013 season.

U.S. skaters are split over allegations of abuse leveled against two coaches and a claim that one coach ordered the sabotage of a Canadian competitor's skates at an international competition last year.

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Presidential Race
10:36 pm
Sun September 23, 2012

Romney Rules Rural As Obama's Support Wanes

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney autographs a coal miner's hat during a campaign event Aug. 14 at American Energy Corp. in Beallsville, Ohio.
Mary Altaffer AP

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 8:08 am

The nation's smallest and most remote places are providing Mitt Romney's biggest margins in battleground states as the 2012 presidential race enters its final weeks.

In fact, rural counties are keeping Romney competitive in the states that are now up for grabs. That's what a new bipartisan survey indicates. The poll also finds that President Obama's rural support has plunged since 2008.

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The Two-Way
3:08 pm
Thu September 20, 2012

U.S. Speedskater Accused Of Sabotaging Rival

Simon Cho of the U.S. celebrates during the 500 meter men's final race at the Short Track Speed Skating World Cup in Dresden in 2011.
Jens Meyer AP

Originally published on Fri September 21, 2012 5:53 pm

The allegations of physical and verbal abuse at U.S. Speedskating have a new twist: A coach allegedly directed a skater to tamper with the skates of a Canadian competitor at an international competition last year — and the skater complied.

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The Two-Way
1:05 pm
Wed September 19, 2012

Speedskaters Step Up Abuse Allegations Against Coach

Originally published on Wed September 19, 2012 2:19 pm

The abuse allegations against U.S. Olympic short track speedskating coach Jae Su Chun have escalated with a demand for arbitration and an "open and ongoing investigation" by police.

But while a large group of skaters charge Chun with abuse, another set has issued a statement in support of the coach.

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