The Court for Arbitration in Sport has had a busy week. Monday saw it ruling on Alberto Contador, the UCI and Alexander Kolobnev were there on Tuesday and yesterday we got the verdict on Jan Ullrich.
Many fans have expressed anger or frustration with the news this week but a quick note to say don’t blame the CAS.
We’d all rather see the sport conducted on the roads of course but the CAS is a vital organisation to help settle disputes. It came about in the 1980s thanks to work from the International Olympic Committee. As the CAS explains:
the regular increase in the number of international sports-related disputes and the absence of any independent authority specialising in sports-related problems and authorised to pronounce binding decisions led the top sports organisations to reflect on the question of sports dispute resolution.
Since its inception many sports have signed up, including cycling. If you are caught in a dispute over a ruling with the UCI then you have a route of appeal; the same is true for the UCI which can appeal to the CAS. This is essential for justice.
The CAS is not strictly-speaking about justice. Instead it arbitrates. It handles two main type of disputes:
- commercial: it will arbitrate on contract rights, business deals and employment issues. Typically the CAS acts as a court of “sole instance” meaning people come to the CAS to ask it to help reach a compromise and resolve the commercial conflict.
- disciplinary: here the CAS is often asked to rule on appeal cases and the CAS itself says “a large number are doping-related“. Here sports federations typically deal with a case, like a doping sanction, but one side is unsatisfied with the outcome. Or a third party intervenes, for example when the Spanish federation cleared Contador last year, the UCI and WADA intervened to bring the appeal to the CAS. Here the CAS acts as the court of “last instance” meaning it offers the final ruling after others have disputed each other’s verdicts.
In all cases the CAS is trying to settle a dispute. It uses Swiss law as a basis but when it comes to doping disputes, the kind we’re more used to with cycling, the CAS relies on the existing rules applied by the sport. For example it does not decide on the length of a ban for a guilty athlete, it aims to apply the rules set by the sport and to which the athlete signed up for. If one sport has stupid rules the CAS is not there to question them, simply if asked to adjudicate it will determine whether the rules are upheld. But rules from all sports and most recently the WADA code are subject to interpretation, there is a bulk of case history built on past precedent.
It works via a panel of three experts taking submissions from both sides of the case and the panel is human and therefore prone to error. That said, its awards are rarely overturned, some have tried to make appeals to the Swiss civil courts but success here is extremely rare. In 2010, the last year of published data, the CAS received 298 requests for arbitration of which 61 were heard and ruled upon.
What took so long with Ullrich?
Seeing Jan Ullrich judged for his role in a blood doping network years later looks absurd. But don’t blame the CAS. The organisation has only ruled on the case brought before it. Here’s the timeline of events with Ullrich:
- 30 June 2006: Ullrich linked by media reports to the blood doping network of Dr Fuentes. He is suspended by his T-Mobile team
- 21 July 2006: Ullrich is sacked by his team
- 11 August 2006: after reviewing documents the UCI asks Swiss Cycling to start anti-doping proceedings against Ullrich as the German is resident in Switzerland.
- 19 October 2006: Ullrich informs Swiss Cycling he resigns and returns his racing licence
- 26 February 2007: Ullrich announces his retirement from professional cycling
- 20 May 2009: the Swiss anti-doping authorities initiate proceedings
- 30 January 2010: the Swiss anti-doping authorities say they can’t prosecute Ullrich as he’d resigned his licence.
- 22 March 2010: the UCI announces it will appeal appeal the Swiss decision at the CAS
From here onwards the CAS is involved, some four years after the UCI tried to get the Swiss involved. The delay was in large part due to Swiss politics and the reorganisation of anti-doping structures; this had nothing to do with Ullrich, simply the officials were busy with other things and besides he’d resigned his licence and was not a Swiss national. But once in front of the CAS time was given to hear the case, indeed perhaps too much time. The CAS expressed its frustration in its award (para 85):
Ullrich’s decision not to participate in the hearings conducted, and Ullrich’s unwillingness to make submissions that address the substance of this case, all of which delayed the efficient resolution of this matter
The CAS isn’t perfect but it’s essential. If we’re frustrated by decisions this week, blame the Swiss for delays in processing Ullrich’s case or ask why all parties in the Contador case needed 565 days to return to the starting position that we could not explain where the clenbuterol came from and therefore all the CAS could do was uphold the black and white UCI rule that imposes a two-year ban if this is the case. If the CAS delivers verdicts that shake the sport it is only settling disputes started by others.