Troy Dalbey, one of two U.S. swimmers detained and questioned by Korean police on suspicion of theft and subsequently ordered to be sent home by the USOC, said the incident in question was not serious and was blown out of proportion by subsequent news accounts.
"This is a case of a molehill turning into a mountain," said the 20-year-old swimmer who plans to enroll at BYU this winter. "We were a couple of kids out celebrating and we played a practical joke, which admittedly was wrong. But if we'd been in America we could have explained the whole situation before it turned into anything. But we weren't in America."Dalbey and U.S. teammate Doug Gjersten, along with an unidentified friend, were in It'aweon, a popular shopping and nightspot district in Seoul, in the early Saturday morning hours when the incident occurred. Dalbey had just hours earlier swum the second leg in the 4X100 meter freestyle relay, won by the Americans in world-record time. For that performance he had picked up his second gold medal of the Olympics. In the 4X200 meter freestyle relay held earlier in the week both he and Gjertsen had been members of the winning U.S. team.
"We were out blowing off steam, having a good time, celebrating," said Dalbey.
Their "good time" extended to the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel, where they were intrigued by a stone decorative statue, shaped like a mask, that was hanging on the wall.
They lifted the mask, which Dalbey estimated weighed 50 pounds, off the wall and then decided to carry it into a nearby restaurant/night club, where they ordered something to eat.
According to Dalbey, an employee of the hotel, who had seen them leave with the statue, followed them to the restaurant, where a confrontation took place.
"He (the Hyatt employee) was drunk. I could smell it on his breath," said Dalbey. "He was beligerent and started swinging at us. He wanted to fight. We didn't swing back. All of a sudden there were about 10 Korean policemen around us, along with some MPs (Military Police, from the nearby U.S. Army base). They took us to a police station, where the Hyatt employee said he wanted to press charges.
"So they took us to another station to file the charges. By that time the manager of the Hyatt had been alerted and he came to the police station. He said he didn't want to file any charges and we were free to go. So we left.
"But the Korean press had heard about what was happening, and by now they were writing down all the details. Because of who we were, being in the Olympics and everything, it was soon all over town.
"Granted, what we did was wrong. I don't know why we did it. It was just like, `Hey, this is cool. Let's take it to dinner with us.' We were going to take it back. We never intended to steal it.
"But we didn't scuffle with police, as was said in the news reports, and we weren't trying to get away with an expensive work of art. We were just a couple of kids who pulled a prank. I'm sorry it happened."
The prank soon received worldwide attention, and was described as an "international incident" by NBC broadcasts sent back to America.
"My father called and was of course very concerned, after what he heard on TV," said Dalbey. "I told him exactly what happened. I don't want this to look any worse than it was."
The United States Olympic Committee assigned one of its lawyers, Ron Rowan, to the case and, at a meeting of the administrative board Sunday morning, considered the circumstances. It was at that meeting that it was decided to send the two swimmers home as soon as South Korean officials gave their OK.
"I think everyone is satisfied with the facts, and that there were no charges filed," said Dalbey. "I just want the record to be straight. It's too bad it had to happen, and had to detract from the Olympics."