Structurally, anyway, it's downright quaint, a white house
nestled next to Lake Geneva at the Olympic complex in Lausanne,
Switzerland. But the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is
emerging as one of the most powerful and far-reaching
institutions in international athletics. Created in 1983 by the
International Olympic Committee as a tribunal for resolving
sports-related disputes, the CAS was restructured as an
independent body in 1994. Recently, CAS has dealt with matters
ranging from Michelle Smith de Bruin's alleged tampering with
her urine sample to whether a boot cover that obscured a
manufacturer's logo on a speed skate was improper. "Half the
world is screaming that an athlete is a drug cheat, and the
other half thinks there's a witch-hunt going on," says Richard
Young, a Colorado Springs attorney who serves as a CAS
arbitrator. "Well, CAS is a forum for cutting through the
emotion and getting to the truth."
The procedure for using CAS is fairly simple. Currently, scores
of governing bodies and international sports organizations--the
IAAF, which governs track and field, is a conspicuous
exception--have agreed to give CAS binding authority to rule,
originally or on appeal, on relevant disputes involving their
athletes. When contretemps arise, depending on the type of case,
the parties may agree on one arbitrator, or each party may
choose an arbitrator from CAS's pool of 150 internationally
regarded experts, with a third arbitrator selected by CAS to
serve as a de facto president of the panel.
Many of the virtues of CAS mirror those of arbitration
generically: It's less expensive, more efficient and as binding
as conventional litigation. Financed by the IOC and various
sports federations, the annual budget for CAS is roughly
$800,000. Parties pay a filing fee of about $330 to have their
disputes heard, but for appellate cases the arbitrators' hourly
wage of $130 is subsidized by CAS. As is traditionally the case
in European courts, the losing party often pays the prevailing
litigant's costs. Smith de Bruin, for instance, paid roughly
$10,000 to FINA, the international swimming federation, after
CAS refused her appeal.
Whereas litigation can languish in courts for years, CAS
decisions are ordinarily handed down within 120 days of closing
arguments. At the Olympic Games a panel of CAS arbitrators is
present to dispense emergency justice within 24 hours. It was
CAS, for instance, that reinstated Canadian snowboarder Ross
Rebagliati's gold medal after he had tested positive for
marijuana at Nagano.
Not that CAS is without its flaws. That the office is situated
on IOC grounds and receives part of its funding from the IOC
suggests that it may not be entirely independent. What's more,
CAS is not immune from the issues of legal relativism that
plague any international tribunal. Is hearsay evidence, for
instance, as readily dismissed in China as it is in Germany?
Should an Indonesian federation be subjected to a U.S.
arbitrator's notion of due process? Proponents say CAS is a step
in the right direction. "The bottom line is that people snicker
when a national sports federation says it has tested its
athletes for drugs, and they're all clean," says one CAS
arbitrator. "But if a blue-ribbon panel of three independent
arbitrators from three countries reaches the same conclusion, it
carries all the weight in the world."