Covington provides back-up for Paralympic Committee

The London office of US firm Covington & Burling is advising the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) at next year’s Winter Paralympic Games in Torino on a pro bono basis. The firm had two lawyers in Athens for the 2004 Paralympics to advise the IPC, the international governing body of sports for disabled athletes, on a number of issues for its three-week duration.

“It’s an involvement that uses the firms’ skills effectively, because we have a substantial sports practice both in the US and in London,” comments Sarah Herbert, a commercial litigation specialist at the firm. “It’s a non-profit-making organisation and is the sort of client we try to help, because we appreciate that they can’t afford to pay for the quality of work that we can provide. The nature of the Athens work is that it needs lawyers on the ground 24 hours a day.” Herbert worked on the 2004 games alongside Graham Arthur, an associate who specialises in IP and commercial litigation.

The firm recently advised the IPC’s anti-doping committee when it ruled against South African powerlifter Coetzee Wium, who was found to have committed an anti-doping rule violation. Wium refused to submit to a sample collection under the anti-doping code, and so the IPC banned him from competitions for two years. In addition, all competitive results obtained by Wium since May 2005, the date of the violation, have been disqualified and he has had to forfeit any medals, points or prizes won since that date.

The firm’s work falls into two main categories – namely, anti-doping offences and classification disputes. “Classification is central to any disabled sport because the athletes are put into groups according to their ability to compete against athletes with a similar disability,” Herbert explains. “There’s a lot of scope for disputes between athletes over how they are themselves classified.”

The IPC has its own disciplinary procedures, which are similar to those of the International Olympics Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations. The final stage for appeals is through the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which can happen on an expedited basis during games as well as outside the competition.

The firm recently advised the IPC on the case of UK dressage rider Andrew Brockman, who applied for approval for a special exemption in respect of his use of a prohibited substance, which was subsequently denied by the committee. “The IPC and all governing sports bodies can grant therapeutic use exemptions for athletes who need to take medication – for example, anti-asthmatic drugs such as inhalers,” Herbert says. “In this case the athlete wanted to take morphine and the IPC argued that they wouldn’t grant an exemption because they felt it would harm the athlete’s health and he shouldn’t be competing. Brockman actually wanted to take the morphine as part of a treatment for a shoulder injury.” In June the Court of Arbitration for Sport endorsed the IPC’s view.