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  In Wake of Harding, USOC to Take a Look at Law

By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 1994; Page B1




They think about Tonya Harding to this day, U.S. Olympic Committee officials do. And the lawyers, all the lawyers on both sides, they think about her too.

It's not her skating that concerns them or, in the case of the USOC, gives them the occasional nightmare. It's all those incredible legal maneuvers she pulled off two months ago.

If Harding and her coterie of attorneys in Portland, Ore., could halt the USOC's disciplinary proceedings, which are established by a 16-year-old U.S. law, what is to prevent such legal filibustering from happening again, the experts ask. Especially with the next Olympics, the 1996 Summer Games, coming to — of all places — Atlanta, located in the good ol' U.S.A., land of the litigants and the home of the temporary restraining order.

As 150 U.S. athletes from the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, gather this afternoon at the White House to celebrate the nation's most successful Winter Games ever, the leadership of the USOC is a bit preoccupied by other matters.

USOC President LeRoy Walker has said he will appoint a "well- credentialed" task force to review the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, the U.S. law that created the USOC, which oversees hundreds of athletes — few of whom are amateurs — in more than 40 sports.

Walker also is busy trying to put together a high-powered symposium at Duke University's law school that will delve into the touchy subject of how international arbitration meshes with U.S. law, with an eye toward the Atlanta Games. How sensitive and complicated is this issue? The panel discussions have already had to be delayed a year, from August 1994 to August '95.

"It'll take a year to make it right," Walker said with a shrug.

Walker knows that with the Olympics coming to Atlanta, the recent legal victories of not only Harding but also sprinter Butch Reynolds sound an alarm that Olympic officials in the United States and around the world cannot ignore.

"If we're going to have 16 days of glory instead of two months of it {because of legal delays in Atlanta}, we've got to have some common thread to get the athletes to the table," Walker said. "It's got to be a fair process, and the athlete has to believe it's fair. And it's got to have closure. It can't go on and on and on.

"The way it is now, with the federations appointing a hearing panel, that's like being judge and jury. We'll get better at this. We have to. Otherwise, Atlanta may go on from July to December."

Thorny issues pop up all the time in Olympic sports. In addition to the perennial bobsled disputes over who's on the team and who isn't, there are the watershed cases. There was a botched drug test in a faraway land that cost an athlete more than two years in the prime of his career. That athlete, Reynolds, fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to compete at the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials. He won the chance to run and made the team, but his international federation refused to let him compete in Barcelona because it had administered the flawed drug test, issued the original ban against him and wasn't about to admit to making a mistake.

Reynolds appears to be getting even though. A U.S. court awarded him $27.3 million in damages from the International Amateur Athletic Federation, track and field's worldwide governing body, and slowly but surely, other U.S. courts are telling the IAAF's American sponsors to send their next payments not to the federation, but to Reynolds.

With the Reynolds saga in mind, is it any wonder U.S. and international Olympic officials were a bit wary of how to proceed when a figure skater whose live-in ex-husband plotted a hit on a rival skater began to fight them in court?

Harding filed a $20 million lawsuit against the USOC in a successful effort to stay on the Olympic team, forcing the USOC to halt a disciplinary hearing it had scheduled in Norway as part of a deal to drop the suit. The USOC believed strongly it had the right to remove Harding from the team because she admitted to knowing information about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan that she did not divulge to authorities for more than a week. (She later pleaded guilty to a conspiracy felony charge.)

But the USOC soon realized it had a problem. Harding signed the organization's Olympic Code of Conduct on Jan. 9, 1994, three days after the attack on Kerrigan. And the attack and its aftermath occurred not at the site of the Olympic Games, where the USOC's Games Administrative Board has the ultimate authority, but at the Olympic trials in Detroit.

"It has been suggested that the moment an individual starts participating in the trials process, they would sign the Code of Conduct," said USOC executive director Harvey Schiller. "We need to look at that. What's more, we need to refine the Code of Conduct to really define behavior."

But who ever would have thought that a clause about attacking a rival athlete might need to be included in such a document? And what are the chances something like this will ever happen again?

"I think the system works," said Anita DeFrantz, a former Olympian who is the only U.S. member of the International Olympic Committee. "This is a worldwide movement. All sorts of things happen worldwide. But there have been 10,000 Americans who have competed in the Games since 1896, and there have been very few aberrations, which is very good."

"I think a lot of people are concerned right now because of an aberration or unusual situation," added USOC general counsel Ronald Rowan. "We had never had a situation like this one."

In fact, Harding's case might not end up being precedent-setting at all, said Reynolds's attorney, Mimi Dane, of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey in Columbus, Ohio.

"There probably won't be a floodgate of litigation," she said. "That happens only in egregious cases. Butch's was an egregious case."

But, especially considering the flurry of USOC reviews and activity, Harding's case will have certain lasting effects. Among them will be a quicker call for binding arbitration, especially as an Olympic Games nears. In practical terms, this might have meant that Harding and the USOC could have had their differences addressed by neutral arbitration sometime in, say, late January, with a decision rendered within two days.

Currently, the USOC constitution says an athlete has a right to submit a controversy to the American Arbitration Association for a quick (48-hour) decision only after the matter has been addressed within the USOC. But some athletes' attorneys said that they question the impartiality of panels comprised of USOC officials or members of national governing bodies, a problem USOC President Walker has acknowledged.

Robert Weaver, one of Harding's attorneys, said he would have wanted to have the option to go to arbitration sooner in the figure skater's case, perhaps bypassing some USOC and U.S. Figure Skating Association procedures.

"We would have felt much more confident of a fair decision if arbitration had been an option earlier," Weaver said.

Said Dennis Rawlinson, another Harding attorney: "Certainly, arbitration poses the possibility of less confusion about the role of the USOC. If something came up at the last minute, maybe we'd need to shorten the steps. Maybe we'd need to go to the arbitration board if we got to a situation where time is precious."

When a case does go to arbitration, it's unlikely it will get caught up in court later.

"After neutral arbitration, a court's standard of review is incredibly narrow," Dane said. "It's very, very rare you can get an AAA decision undone."

Several athletes' lawyers said officials simply need to follow the rules that currently exist. Others believe it's time to try to take the hundreds of different codes of conduct in the international Olympic community and whittle them down to one uniform document.

"Part of the problem is that international federations, national Olympic committees, the USOC and national governing bodies, all of them, have different sets of rules," said the USOC's Walker. "We have to have clear statements that the athletes can understand. If it's not fair, it will make them mad. We don't want any more misunderstandings."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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