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International Sports Issues

International sports issues and the law revolve primarily around the Olympic Games. The international Olympic rules, policies, and procedures have faced national and international legal challenges and other disputes including outright boycotts since it began again back in 1896. As exposure of the Olympics has increased, so too has the money involved in the Olympic Games at all levels. Athletes compete for international fame and fortune by winning a medal.[1]

Professional athletes are now commonplace during the Olympics as well. In fact, the United States sent professional basketball players such as Michael Jordan to compete in the summer games in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992. The U.S. Olympic Committee now awards cash prizes to American athletes based on their performance at the Olympics. a practice that other countries have offered for a long time.

Competition for and During the Olympic Games

Countries, as well as states and provinces within countries, fiercely compete for the ability to hold the Olympic Games within their borders. The possibility of sizeable monetary rewards to athletes has tempted many Olympic participants to use illegal and unethical means to obtain an unfair advantage over other competitors despite the Olympic system’s set of strict guidelines and rules with regard to illegal drugs. Additionally, the IOC has suspended and permanently banned many medal competitors (and sometimes winners) for violations of the rules.[2]

The Olympic Movement

The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 in Athens, Greece. At that time, athletes were thought to compete in the Olympic Games in an international setting only as amateurs. In other words, a competitor was seen as someone who competed only for the love of the sport without regard to financial rewards or fame. Today, the Olympics are no longer just for amateurs. Professional athletes are also allowed to compete.

Unfortunately, the Olympic Games have become increasingly commercialized and now serve as a showcase for major countries, athletes, corporate promotions and international politics. While the Olympic Games are supposed to unite the world through sport, international politics have interfered.  At the1936 Berlin Olympics, Adolf Hitler refused to recognize African American Jesse Owens’ four gold medals, a wonder at that time The 1992 Munich (West Germany) Games were marred by tragedy when Arab terrorists killed Israeli athletes and took nine other hostages.

During the 1976 Montreal Olympics Games, the Canadian governments refused to allow Taiwan’s team to carry its flag or have its national anthem played at the games. Also, in Montreal, several African nations demanded that New Zealand be prevented from competing because one of its rugby teams had played in South Africa, at that time a racially segregationist nation. Thirty-one nations withdrew their teams from the 1976 Olympics competition as a result of New Zealand’s refusal. The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. More than 60 other nations boycotted this event as well. As a result, the Soviet Union and 15 other nations withdrew from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.[3]

The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, included the Unified Team (with athletes from 12 former Soviet republics), a reunited Germany, and South Africa, appearing for the first time since 1960. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, North and South Korea entered the games under one flag, although they competed as separate countries.[4]

The Olympic Movement is the general term used to describe the International Olympic system of rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was established in 1894 for the 1896 Olympics in Athens, Greece. The IOC’s headquarters are in Lausanne, Switzerland. It sets and enforces Olympic policies. As of 2000, the IOC recognized 199 national Olympic committees, including the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC is currently headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The IOC normally chooses the site of future games at least six years in advance.[5] The IOC is a very powerful body. It cannot force its rules on national governments, but countries that wish to participate in the Olympics must agree to its procedures.

Every person or organization that plays any part whatsoever in the Olympic Movement has to accept the supreme authority of the IOC and be bound by its Rules and submit to its jurisdiction. It is the supreme authority in decisions regarding the suspension, expulsion, or disqualification of all athletes[6] Being the supreme authority of the Olympic Movement, the IOC is the final authority on all questions concerning the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement, including matters of discipline affecting athletes and coaches. Additionally, the IOC is the final arbiter for permanent and temporary penalties of all kinds, the heaviest of which are suspension, expulsion, disqualification, and exclusion. The powers of the IOC are absolute. It delegates to the International Federations (IFs), however, the technical control of the sports they govern. The lOC has recently emphasized that decisions involving its own rules must be submitted to binding arbitration under the Court of Arbitration for Sport. [7]

The IOC relies heavily on the International Federations governing individual sports to enforce its rules and regulations. The IOC delegates to individual IF’s the technical control of all aspects of the sport they supervise as well as authority for suspending or disciplining individual who violate the IF’s rules or codes of conduct. However, sometimes domestic (national) rights of the individual athletes conflict with the rules of the IOC or the IFs. Additionally, it is possible that athletes from one country might be treated differently from athletes from another country. This has led to numerous domestic and international lawsuits. The introduction of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (ICAS) and its supervision over the CAS were designed to deal with ensuring that athletes around the world are treated the same for similar violations of the Olympic Movement.[8]

The IOC recognizes national Olympic committees (NOCs) as the sole authorities responsible for representing their respective countries at the Olympic Games as well as at other events sponsored by the IOC. For the United States, the NOC is the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), which was originally chartered by Congress as an independent corporation on September 21, 1950. The USOC exercises exclusive jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to the participation of the United States in the Olympic Games and in the Pan American Games. As stated in an earlier chapter, each sport within the Olympic Movement has a national federation, which is responsible for coordinating the activity for that particular sport in the country. In the United States these federations are known as national governing bodies (NGB).

The USOC is charged with providing resolution of conflicts and disputes involving amateur athletes, national governing bodies, and amateur sports organizations and with protecting the opportunity of any amateur athlete to participate in amateur athletic competition. Swift resolution of legal disputes, however, has not always been possible.[9]

The authority for the creation of National Governing Bodies is found in the Amateur Sports Act. The authority of the NGBs includes recommending individual athletes to the USOC for participation in the Olympic or Pan American Games as well as establishing internal procedures for determining eligibility standards. The NGBs are responsible both to the USOC (and U.S. courts) and to the IF for their sport. In an eligibility dispute, the first decision to suspend a U.S. athlete most likely to come from an NGB, but the IF may declare the athlete ineligible without a prior action by an NGB. This has led to vicious legal battles. However, the addition of the CAS has helped in resolving these disputes more quickly. [10]

The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act established the United States Olympic Committee and provided for the national governing bodies for each Olympic sport. The Act provides important legal protection for individual athletes.[11]

Prior to the adoption of the Act in 1978, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) represented the United States on international competition matters and regulated amateur sports generally. The AAU had adopted arbitrary rules which prohibited women from participating in running events and banned any runner who had raced in the same event as a runner with a shoe-company sponsorship. In response to criticisms of the AAU, Congress adopted the Act, effectively removing that organization from any governance role. The AAU now continues as a voluntary organization largely promoting youth track.

The Amateur Sports Act charters the US Olympic Committee, which in turn can charter a national governing body (NGB) for each sport, such as USA Swimming, the United States Ski Team or the United States Figure Skating Association. Each NGB in turn establishes the rules for selecting the United States Olympic Team and promotes amateur competition in that sport. The Act requires that active athletes (defined as amateur athletes who have represented the United States in international amateur competition within the last ten years) must hold 20 percent of the voting power of any board or committee in an NGB. The Act also provides athletes with due process and appeal rights concerning eligibility disputes.[12]

The Act gives exclusive rights of usage of the words Olympic and Olympiad to the Olympic Committee. The Committee used this act to sue other organizations which used this term “Olympics”, such as the Gay Olympics.[13] The United States government controls the very existence of the USOC. In seeking protection from suspension procedures, many athletes have attempted to obtain shelter in the due process provision of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but have failed each time.[14]  The United States Olympic Committee and now the United States Anti-Doping Agency, both serve as “private” regulators for the United States Olympic Movement. This private sector status of sport regulation in the United States has created a significant accountability vacuum. As a result, athletes’ constitutional liberty and property interests are threatened because athletes are not given meaningful due process protections to protect their eligibility. Steps should be taken to promote greater accountability for the United States Olympic Movement, so that the athletes who serve to enhance our nation’s prestige do not risk their due process rights in the process. [15]







[1] Id. pp.191

[2] Id. pp.192

[3] Id. p.193

[4] Id.

[5] Id. p.194

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. pp.195

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. pp.198

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15]  Dionne L. Koller, How the United States Government Sacrifices Athletes’ Constitutional Rights in the Pursuit of National Prestige. B.Y.U. Law Rev., Fall 2008.

Inside International Sports Issues