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'94 Winter Olympic Games / Lillehammer : USOC Had Little Choice in Harding Case

February 14, 1994|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — Troy Dalbey and Doug Gjertsen's place in Olympic infamy was cemented the moment they stole a 60-pound stone mask from a Seoul hotel wall after they had competed in the 1988 Summer Games.

Although they were not charged with a crime, the gold-medal winning American swimmers caused an international stir with their ill-advised prank six years ago.

As a result, they were disciplined by the U.S. Olympic Committee's Games Administrative Board, which confined them to the Olympic village until the Games were over.

But when the USOC tried to schedule the board's first hearing since the mask incident to determine the status of figure skater Tonya Harding, it learned a harsh lesson.

In an increasingly litigious society, the Harding episode underscores the quandary U.S. officials face when trying to discipline athletes.

Must they follow the basic tenets of the American judicial system? Or are they guided by lesser standards?

"We're set up to handle some drunk hockey players (who) go out and tear up a bar," one USOC official said. "That's what the code of conduct is all about. We're certainly not set up to cope with this."

They certainly were not.

The code of conduct empowers the USOC to dismiss an athlete for improper behavior. A somewhat vague, three-page guideline that American athletes are expected to follow, the code was never meant to deal with acts of violence. It was never meant to supersede a criminal investigation.

Discreditable behavior is one thing. The five-week spectacle surrounding the clubbing of Olympian Nancy Kerrigan is quite an other.

"I've been paralyzed by the thing, like everybody else," the USOC official said.

Had Harding confessed to having a role in the Kerrigan assault, or had she been convicted of any crime, it would have been easy for the USOC to act. But Harding maintained her innocence, putting the USOC in a precarious legal position.

And once they issued a notice for the board hearing last Monday, the results were predictable.

Harding's attorneys knew exactly what they were doing when filing a $25-million suit in state court.

The suit was dismissed Saturday after attorneys spent the day hashing out an agreement at the Clackamas County Courthouse in Oregon City, Ore. It was a simple deal: Harding dropped her suit for the chance to skate in the Lillehammer Games.

The USOC had little choice but to capitulate. It was apparent that the organization was in trouble when Clackamas County Circuit Judge Patrick D. Gilroy struggled with the subtleties of the USOC's power base.

In dismissing the case, Gilroy warned the USOC that he had intended to consider blocking any suspension by the Games Administrative Board. Gilroy clearly was uncomfortable with the USOC's claim of broad-based powers over athletes.

If Harding's legal challenge does nothing else, it highlights flaws in the USOC system.

"I think they are going to have to go back and rewrite some of their bylaws now," a Portland attorney familiar with the case said.

When weighing the legal risks last week, the USOC considered itself on solid ground. Citing ideals of sportsmanship and fair play, legal experts suggested that Harding had little recourse but to adhere to USOC guidelines.

Still, the case was difficult to assess because it is unparalleled in U.S. Olympic history. There have been disciplinary cases, even criminal cases, but never has there been an attack on an athlete such as this.

So, that USOC power, as stated in the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, evaporated in state court.

Harding's attorneys chose a clever strategy in borrowing a few pages from Butch Reynolds' successful $27-million suit against the International Amateur Athletics Federation.

John Gall, a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer who represented Reynolds, a world-class sprinter, said when a sports organization has broad-based controls over athletes, it is obligated to hold fair and impartial disciplinary hearings.

"I think it is a problem for them to claim it is a fair hearing when the people making the decision are appointed by those who potentially are the accusers of (Harding)," he said.

In the broadest sense, the standards of fairness include an exhaustive appeals process that would take months to complete.

This progression became muddled because the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. already had initiated a disciplinary hearing against Harding. It is scheduled for March 9-10. Further, Harding also could have taken her dispute to the American Arbitration Assn. or the Court of Arbitrations for Sports in Geneva, Switzerland. Neither body would have been able to respond before the Olympic figure skating competition on Feb. 23 and 25.

Gilroy, for one, had trouble understanding when the figure skating association's jurisdiction ended and the USOC's began.

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