Where Do Athletes Go to Court?

Why, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, of course.

Sprinter Jerome Young, a member of the United States’ victorious 4 x 400 relay team at the 2000 Olympics, may soon be stripped of his gold medal. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled on Tuesday that Young, who flunked a steroid test in 1999, should have been ineligible for the Sydney Games. What is the Court of Arbitration for Sport?

Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the CAS was founded in 1984 to resolve any and all disputes in the sporting realm. The court was the brainchild of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former president of the International Olympic Committee, which is also headquartered in Lausanne. The CAS, which relies on the expertise of more than 150 arbitrators from 55 countries, was under the IOC’s control until 1994, when it was forced to change its administrative structure by a Swiss court ruling that questioned its impartiality. The court is now overseen by the International Council of Arbitration for Sport, which consists of 20 “high-level jurists,” including Judge Richard Sheppard Arnold of America’s 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. (The case that inspired the ICAS’ founding involved a disgruntled jockey, Elmar Gundel, who disapproved when the CAS upheld his suspension in a horse-doping scandal.)

The CAS has few limitations on what types of cases it can consider: As long as it involves sports, and both parties agree to the arbitration, pretty much any conflict is fair game. However, the bulk of the court’s rather light docket—it ruled on 39 cases last year—is taken up with cases involving either doping or soccer transfer fees (that is, how much one club team pays another to obtain a player). There is also the occasional gripe from an athlete who didn’t make his or her Olympic team, as well as a smattering of national quibbles. In May, for example, the CAS rejected a Welsh bid to have Russia expelled from the Euro 2004 soccer tournament on the grounds that a Russian midfielder had tested positive for a banned substance after a qualifying game. (Wales would have taken Russia’s place in the tournament if the CAS decision had tipped in its favor.)

Since the arbitration process typically takes several months, special ad hoc CAS panels are created during each Olympics in order to handle disputes within 24 hours. At the Sydney Olympics, for example, the ad hoc court quickly upheld the IOC’s decision to revoke the gold medal of Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan, who tested positive for the stimulant pseudoephedrine.

Though the CAS has been ostensibly independent of the IOC since 1994, there are some athletes who grumble that the court is too biased in favor of the Olympics’ management. They point out that many members of the ICAS, who select the arbitrators, are members of either the IOC or the Association of National Olympic Committees. This was a particularly sore point when the CAS ruled against Alain Baxter, a British skier who lost his bronze medal from the 2002 Winter Olympics for testing positive for the stimulant lev-methamphetamine. Though the court agreed with Baxter’s claim that the substance is not performance-enhancing, especially at the minute levels that were found in his sample, it nonetheless refused to return the medal. Baxter toyed with the idea of appealing the CAS’ decision to the European Court of Human Rights, in what would have been an unprecedented move. But he never did, perhaps because the CAS’ authority as the Supreme Court of sports is so well-established.

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