Sara Friend: British Olympic Association

Sara Friend is a proud member of Team Great Britain – but as the BOA’s legal head, she’s more involved with running the show than performing on the track. Alex Wade reports

Team Great Britain for the Athens Olympics comprises nigh-on 300 finely-tuned athletes at the peak of their physical abilities. It also includes, for the first time, a lawyer. New Zealand-born Sara Friend will represent Great Britain as an integral, if behind-the-scenes, team member. “I’m fully accredited as a team member and will go down in the official record books as such,” says Friend, who does not hide her excitement at the honour. “It’s amazing to be a part of the team,” she says.

Friend is speaking from the Wandsworth headquarters of the British Olympic Association (BOA), for which she is, technically, head of legal affairs. “That’s my full title, but I tend to get called ‘lawyer’,” jokes Friend, whose style is cooperative rather than combative. It is an approach that was especially evident in agreeing the Team Members Agreements for the British athletes.

“The Team Members Agreements were introduced in Atlanta 1996,” says Friend. “Back then they were a lot simpler, but in the meantime we’ve undertaken a very detailed consultation process. I presented the revised agreement in draft to all the sports.”

Everyone was, broadly at least, happy with the new version, although Friend says the Athletes Commission (the de facto athletes’ union) did seek independent legal advice “on four or five points”. Not that there was much objecting to the terms of the agreement (which covers everything from anti-doping clauses, stipulations on wearing appropriate clothing, prohibitions on journalistic activity during the Games and not getting involved in any ‘ambush marketing’).

“The essence of the agreement flows from requirements of the International Olympic Committee [IOC],” explains Friend. “An athlete objecting to the Team Members Agreement would risk forfeiting a place in Team GB.” But even though she occupied a strong, perhaps even unassailable, negotiating position, Friend sent the new agreement in draft to athletes and their agents by way of achieving consensus pre-signature. “I wanted buy-in and cooperation,” she explains. “I don’t like to wield a stick.”

Friend moved to the UK in 1990. She studied law and French at Buckingham University before completing her Law Society finals at Guildford Law School. The next stop was a six-year stint with Baker & McKenzie, including two years as a trainee. “I worked primarily in dispute resolution, mainly handling international arbitrations,” says Friend. One of them involved a prolonged stint in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. “I enjoyed it,” she says. “I was lucky to work for a while in the sort of country that you wouldn’t usually imagine visiting.”

Friend’s good fortune continued when she saw the BOA position advertised. “I’d decided that I wasn’t going to stick with private practice forever and a day, and I’ve always loved sport,” she says.
“The BOA job was advertised shortly after the Sydney Games, which I’d watched constantly. I made a decision to go for the job and try and be somehow more involved in the Games.”

A former county-level cricketer and badminton player in New Zealand, Friend’s resilience and determination paid off, with her new role at the BOA starting not long after Sydney 2000. “It’s a dream job,” she states.

On a day-to-day basis, Friend’s workload comprises negotiating commercial matters such as marketing and sponsorship agreements and handling trademark infringements. “It’s cyclical,” says Friend.
“There’s a huge upsurge in work the closer we get to the Games.
We’ve signed nine sponsors in the last 12 months, including three in six weeks.” There is also a political strand to her role, not only in dealing with the IOC for the forthcoming Athens Games but also for the Winter Olympics in Turin and the next summer event in Beijing in 2008. On top of that, there is the brightly burning flame of London’s bid for the 2012 Games.

“The BOA was formed under the auspices of the Olympic movement,” explains Friend, “and therefore our primary purpose is to promote and protect the Olympics.” In turn, that means wholehearted support – and lobbying – in connection with London’s 2012 bid. “The political lobbying comes under my wing, and we’ve made a tremendous effort to raise awareness and get the Government involved,” says Friend.

Eventually, after groundwork lasting some two years, a 400-page document setting out London’s merits was drawn up and presented to the Government. “Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Authority [GLA] came on board immediately, but we still had to work very hard on the Government to get them to underwrite the bid,” explains Friend.

If London’s prospects of hosting the games are still only a possibility, there is little doubt that the ground has shifted considerably from the widespread negativity when the bid was first mooted. The BOA, GLA and the Government have entered into a joint venture, setting up an arm’s length company to administer the bid. “It has a separate legal identity and staff, but remains accountable to its key stakeholders,” says Friend.

For August, though, Friend will leave the political machinations of the London Olympic bid behind her for the intense heat of Athens. She will be staying with the other members of Team GB in the Olympic Village, where part of her role will be meeting and greeting VIPs, including corporate sponsors and a certain Mr Blair and his wife. Aside from that, her legal skills will be called upon to help resolve eligibility disputes, deal with athletes who breach protocol or who, intentionally or otherwise, take part in ambush marketing.

“The classic case was Linford Christie in Atlanta wearing Puma contact lenses at a press conference,” explains Friend. Christie’s actions were to the chagrin of the official sponsors, but there is little chance of such conduct being repeated. Friend says the athletes have been made aware in no uncertain terms that ambush marketing is strictly prohibited, not merely by the terms of the Team Members Agreement, but via a series of briefings. “The ultimate sanction for an athlete breaching this rule would be for them to be sent home by the chief executive, Simon Clegg,” says Friend. “A lot would depend on the level of seriousness and intent.”

The other major legal issue that could come Friend’s way – although she hopes it does not – is, of course, doping. “All the athletes are tested before they go to the Games,” says Friend. “At the Games the IOC and World Anti-Doping Authority will carry out 500 tests across the board. The three medalists and the fourth-placed athlete will be tested, and there will be more testing than ever before. It’s not pleasant, but sadly it’s necessary.”

In the dread scenario of a British competitor testing positive, Friend will be involved in assessing the evidence and whether there are any grounds for appeal. She herself has no sympathy for athletes who abuse the system, saying: “Drugs are fundamentally bad for your health. How can you have sportsmen promoting sport if they’re doing things that could kill them? It can’t be healthy to involve yourself in Frankenstein science. There’s no excuse for doping if you’re involved in competition at this level.”

But if she has no time for the cheats, she remains continually inspired by the athletes she meets. “I’ve met a lot of athletes and will have met all of them by the end of August. I never fail to be amazed by how inspiring they are as people. They work so hard. Their achievement drives me on to try and bring the Games to London,” she says. “A London Games would have a tremendous impact and influence on young people in Britain.”

So she must be looking forward to watching the stars in action?
Friend pauses, wondering whether her workload will allow her to see as many events as she would like. “Expectations of seeing events are low, given that I have to be around to look after people in the village,” she admits, adding that she hopes to attend at least the opening and closing ceremonies. Oh, and a couple of other small events. “It would be wonderful to see Darren Campbell in the 100 metres,” she says wistfully. “And some of the swimming – we have some world-class swimmers.”
Sara Friend
Head of legal affairs
British Olympic Association

Organisation British Olympic Association
Sector Sport
Employees 40
Legal capability One
Annual legal spend £30,000 to £40,000
Head of legal affairs Sara Friend
Reporting to Chief executive Simon Clegg
Main law firms Baker & McKenzie, Farrer & Co and Withers