London 2012: Lawyers poised for Olympic disputes

Image caption Britain's rhythmic gymnastic team appealed after missing the qualification threshold by 0.273 marks

Britain's rhythmic gymnasts are now almost certain to have a place the London 2012 Olympics but only after winning an appeal.

With a case onBritain's anti-doping rules due to begin next week, Joshua Rozenberg examines how even gold medals can hang on a court's judgment.

It's not just the world's athletes who'll be coming to London for the summer Olympics; there'll also be a team of 12 lawyers on call to resolve disputes that might otherwise hold up the Games.

In the early 1980s, the International Olympic Committee saw the need for an independent, impartial tribunal to resolve sports-related problems.

TheCourt of Arbitration for Sport, which it helped establish in 1984, is now accepted by most sporting bodies as the ultimate authority for resolving disputes at international level.

CAS, as it's known, has some 300 lawyers on its books who sit in panels of three as arbitrators.

Their job is to hear both sides to a dispute and to deliver a ruling that is binding on the parties.

Dispute resolution starts long before the games themselves. Dwain Chambers is awaiting a decision by CAS on whether the British Olympic Association rules that currently bar him from competing for Team GB break the international rules on drug bans.

Although CAS is based at Lausanne in Switzerland, it can sit anywhere in the world.

For major sporting events, it sends what it calls an ad hoc division - a panel of 12 arbitrators - to the country where the event is taking place.

In the run-up to the London Olympics and during the Games themselves, the court's ad hoc division will be based at the Grosvenor House hotel in Park Lane, although the 12 lawyers will have VIP passes to the Games which they can use when they're not resolving disputes.

One of them is Graeme Mew, who practises from Ontario as well as in London and who hasjust delivered a ruling in favourof the British rhythmic gymnastics group

They challenged a decision by the British Amateur Gymnastics Association and their claim was heard by Mr Mew sitting at Sport Resolutions, a London-based arbitration service.

In a recent paper, Graeme Mew concluded that a harmonised method for resolving sports disputes had now emerged from an "overlapping disarray of dispute resolution methods".

He added: "The goals are certainty, consistency, neutrality, fairness and respect for the principles of open justice."

Gold medal decision

One lawyer who has appeared before an ad hoc panel of arbitrators at the Athens Olympics in 2004 is Sara Sutcliffe, the British Olympic Association's legal director.

Image caption Lawyer Sara Sutcliffe successfully appealed the Athens three-day eventing result, gaining gold for the GB team

She is one of the few people who can say they have been instrumental in the winning of a gold medal without actually being a competitor or coach at the Games.

She told Law in Action that she'd been having dinner with fellow lawyers near the Acropolis when she was told of a disputed field-of-play appeal involving the British equestrian team.

The referee's decision had been overturned by an appeals panel that the British team believed had exceeded its jurisdiction.

By the following lunchtime, Ms Sutcliffe had filed a statement of appeal and there was a hearing the next afternoon.

A decision in favour of the British team was delivered the following day.

By then, the riders had left Athens and their gold medals were awarded later, when they were invited to Buckingham Palace.

Ms Sutcliffe recalls discussion at the time about whether a "roomful of lawyers" should decide questions that ought to have been resolved on the field of play.

"The point we had to make was that the decision had been taken by the right person, the referee on the ground at the time," she says.

Arbitrators derive their authority from an agreement by the parties to be bound by the eventual ruling. This can be enforced in the courts if necessary.

Prepared for anything

All athletes taking part in the Olympics are required to accept the ad hoc panel's jurisdiction.

The panel must decide the dispute in accordance with the Olympic charter, using a mixture of English common-law and Continental civil-law procedures.

The service is free and speedy, with all decisions being delivered within 24 hours of the application being made.

That's all the more impressive when you realise that arbitrators must be prepared for anything.

Michael Beloff QC, a London-based barrister, told Law in Action of a bizarre case he'd had to decide at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

It involved a dispute among the Cape Verde delegation - the smallest at the games - as to who should carry the flag at the opening ceremony.

The administrators, who outnumbered the athletes, decided that it should be one of them.

That displeased one of the hurdlers, who grabbed the flag from the official and marched round the stadium with it.

As a result, he was excluded from the Olympic village, a decision overturned by Mr Beloff and his fellow arbitrators on the grounds that the athlete had not been given a chance to tell his side of the story.

But when the hurdler took part in the race, it turned out that he had a badly injured leg. He collapsed on leaving the starting blocks.

As Michael Beloff recalls ruefully, "he certainly didn't get to the first hurdle."

Law in Action is on BBC Radio 4 at 16:00 GMT on Tuesday 6 March and repeated at 20:00 GMT on Thursday 8 March.

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