(Reuters) - Park Tae-hwan's hopes of competing in the 2016 Rio Games were put in jeopardy as the South Korean Olympic swimming champion was handed an 18-month ban after a failed drug test, swimming's governing body said on Monday.
Park, a two-time world champion and first Korean to win an Olympic swimming medal, tested positive for testosterone in an out of competition test conducted by FINA last September ahead of the Asian Games.
FINA said the suspension will start from Sept. 3 2014 and run through March 2, 2016. All of Park's results from the ban's start date will be annulled and any prize money returned.
An appeal against the decision must be referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sport within the next 21 days, FINA said in a statement.
The 25-year-old stands no chance of competing in Rio under the existing rules at the Korean Olympic Committee but the KOC would not rule out that possibility altogether.
"...according to the rule on nation team athlete selection under the KOC regulations, anyone who has been subject to disciplinary action for doping cannot be selected as a national athlete for three years following the end of the disciplinary period," said KOC spokesperson Park Dong-hee.
"Once the 18 month disciplinary period is over, and if(Park's) participation in the Rio Olympics becomes a social issue, it will be possible to review the revision of athlete selection rules from the perspective of what is best for national interest."
Known affectionately as 'Marine Boy,' Park became a national hero in South Korea when he powered his way to gold in the 400 meters freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Games.
His wholesome, clean-cut image and poster-boy looks have made him one of the most celebrated athletes in South Korea and while his performances in the pool have dipped in recent years his popularity has never wavered.
The swimmer's smiling face featured on endorsements for milk, headache pills, air conditioners, and communications equipment. Park was also a goodwill ambassador for the 'Dynamic Korea' promotion aimed at boosting the country's image abroad.
Park had been left "shocked" by the positive test, which local media said had been a result of a local hospital giving him an injection that contained testosterone.
Seoul prosecutors have charged a doctor with professional negligence, according to Yonhap news agency.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; additional reporting by Seoul newsroom; Editing by Frank Pingue/Sudipto Ganguly