Picking winners – and losers

If Olympic selection committees want to avoid appeals, their various policies need to be brought together

Nick De Marco
Nick De Marco

The British Olympic Association (BOA) has promised that it will be sending “our greatest team” to the London 2012 Games. Around 550 athletes will be selected for Team GB and competition for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete at a home Olympics is fierce.

At the same time, Britain’s host nation status means more home athletes can be selected than in other Games. These factors, together with the BOA’s requirement that each sport has a selection procedure and right of appeal, are behind the spate of legal challenges to the selection of athletes to represent Britain.

The situation is not satisfactory. Some may argue that lawyers should not be involved in matters of sports selection. A football player not called up to represent England has no right to a hearing of a complaint that a selection policy has not been followed. Many will ask: what makes Olympic sports different?

However, the fact that each sport must have a selection and appeals procedure does mean, of course, that those procedures should be followed, and the appeals should be meaningful, if only as a matter of contract law.

The two main problems thrown up by this spate of cases both stem from the fact that each national sporting federation has been able to devise its own selection and appeals procedure: there is no uniform standard and there have arguably been some surprising and contradictory results.

In one widely reported challenge – the decision of the taekwondo ruling body not to select world-ranked number one Aaron Cook – the chief executive of the BOA has publicly criticised British Taekwondo for having a policy that is too discretionary.

Different federations have had ­different approaches to the issue of bias where, for example, a coach of one of the athletes selected sits on the selection panel.

Some federations allow for appeals to independent external bodies such as Sports Resolutions. In challenges to British Judo (including one the ­author was involved in relating to the London 2012 Olympic Games), the appeal is to an internal body and the athlete is not allowed to be in the room at the time the selection panel makes its representations, nor to know what they are so he can respond to them.

It seems both likely and sensible that a more uniform selection procedure shall be put in place for federations to apply in future, and at the very least there ought to be a uniform appeals process that allows for a fair appeal before an independent body if an appeal is to mean anything (and comply with the standards set down in the Arbitration Act as well as in Bradley v The Jockey Club (2005)). As the expert bodies, national federations ought to maintain the right to select, but processes need to be standardised.

Whatever the result, now the gates have been opened to legal challenges in sports selection it is unlikely they can easily be closed tight again.