For eight of her teammates, the revelations that Marion Jones had been involved with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) were a death knell to their place in Olympic history. The International Olympic Committee quickly stepped in, stripping every participant of the American women’s 4x100m and 4x400m relay teams from the Sydney Olympics in 2000 of their medals. Eight women, who already were shunted off into the shadows while Jones soaked up the accolades and the spotlight, were now left further relegated to an ignominious spot in the record books that was no fault of theirs.
But today the Court of Arbitration for Sport, hearing the appeal of seven of these women, restored their medals in a ruling that was founded on the simple fact that neither the IOC nor the IAAF can retroactively apply rules. That is all this is, however — no long-term precedent is about to be set by this ruling. Jearl Miles-Clark, Monique Hennagan, LaTasha Colander Clark, Andrea Anderson, Chryste Gaines, Torri Edwards, and Passion Richardson, the aggrieved athletes in this case (excluding Nanceen Perry, the last member of the 4×400 relay team that did not enter into the appeal), are hardly trend-setters. This will likely prove the last time that such an appeal plays out in the athletes’ favor.
Why? The IAAF enacted in 2003 more stringent rules that prohibited relay teams from keeping medals earned if even one of the crew members tests positive for a performance-enhancing drug. That was the basic crux of why the appeal went in favor of the American women. In their ruling, the CAS stated:
“The (CAS) panel found that at the time of the Sydney Olympic Games there was no express IOC or IAAF rule in force that clearly allowed the IOC to annul the relay team results if one team member was found to have committed a doping offence. The panel acknowledges that the outcome of this case may be unfair to the other relay teams that competed with no doped athletes helping their performance; however, such outcome exclusively depends on the rules enacted or not enacted by the IOC and by the IAAF at the time.”
This loophole was already effectively closed seven years ago. The timing worked in the favor of relay members who were stripped of medals in Sydney; going forward, such an appeal is likely to fail due to the existence of the stringent rules now on the books. But the IOC still find little solace in the fact that this case was lost, and are intent on finding even more ways to close down the loopholes. As IOC president Jacques Rogge told reporters in the wake of this overturned sanction:
“I think the international federations and also the IOC must tighten their rules to avoid this happening again. We respect the judgment but we are going to study the consequences to see how we can improve our action.”
So what lessons can we learn from both the 2000 case study and the IOC/IAAF response?
- Know your teammates. Performance-enhancing drugs have become more effective (and harder to detect) than ever before. The drug Jones was ultimately found to be using, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), might never have been discovered if not for a well-timed tip from a bitter rival coach. Now that a person can lose their medal for the actions of their teammates, potential relay partners must now be vetted even more stringently prior to competition.
- The door is now closed. While we will undoubtedly see doping suspensions and sanctions and expunged results still overturned at the CAS from time to time, their own wording makes it clear that the only reason they allowed Jones’ teammates to retain their medals is that the current rule was not yet on the books of either the IOC or the IAAF. Any attempts in the future to make such an appeal — regardless of the sport, since surely this ruling is going to send every international sports federation to the drawing board to redraft clauses in their rulebooks giving them power to overturn team results for individual offenses — are going to be likely laughed down by the CAS without some exceptional backup argumentation.
- The field got fairer. Yes, it was sad to see these other Americans lose their medals when Jones was popped for her illicit working relationship with Victor Conte and crew. But what was even more sad was to see the women behind them from the other nations competing relegated to lower placings by a chemically-enhanced freak of the track. Now that the IOC and IAAF (and other federations) have recognized the risks involved, their efforts to ensure that future sanctions stick is a boon for clean athletes. It may come too late for the Jamaicans, Russians, Nigerians and French — all of whom were affected adversely by the CAS appeal — but it at least rectifies the ability of unclean teams to hold onto their unjustly-earned results in the future.