Learning to say 'cheese' -- often

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2002

Nothing more slippery than a conference table could determine who gets spots on the U.S. teams for women's bobsled and men's short-track speedskating.

Who says lawyering hasn't become an Olympic sport?

Ever since Tonya Harding's people whacked Nancy Kerrigan and then challenged the team-selection process, the U.S. Olympic Committee has spent almost as much time in court as Judge Judy.

By all indications, this is going to be another bad month.

In the past few days, brakewoman Jen Davidson and speedskater Tommy O'Hare brought their grievances and attorneys to conference rooms in Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Diego and asked an arbitrator to put them on the U.S. Olympic team headed to Salt Lake City.

Davidson was unceremoniously kicked out of her bobsled in December by driver Jen Racine, once her best friend, and the two haven't spoken since without the benefit of counsel.

They were the darlings of the soon-to-debut sport of women's bobsled, doing photo-shoots for Kellogg's cereal box covers together before it all changed one day in December. Davidson says that's when Racine told her to skip a push-off competition, then replaced her with the brakewoman who won it.

O'Hare contends even more treachery was afoot in the speedskating trials at about the same time. The 1998 Olympian says two members of the current team fixed a race so a third teammate could get the spot on the relay team O'Hare thinks should be his.

All the aggravation, inconvenience, expense and time might be worth it if the disputes ended there. But don't count on it.

According to the bylaws agreed to by U.S. Olympic hopefuls, athletes can appeal the team-selection process twice. Davidson and O'Hare were allowed to make their cases first before the national governing bodies for their sports. When that failed to resolve either matter, both were entitled to a hearing before an officer from the American Arbitration Association.

Also present are the U.S. Olympic Committee and its lawyers, and athletes who might be affected by any decision and their lawyers. That means the room is more crowded than the practice venues for teams that are supposed to compete barely three weeks from now.

But there's still no guarantee the dispute will end with an arbitrator's decision in the next few days. This is America, after all, where people who don't get what they want often hire themselves lawyers instead.

U.S. Olympic Committee general counsel Jeff Benz told USA Today that he had no problem with people challenging the selection process. Maybe that's because few words warm a lawyer's heart more than ''the possibility of further litigation.''

''That's part and parcel of what we do,'' Benz said. ''We don't think this negatively affects the fielding of the strongest Olympic team possible.''


Imagine how cramped the bobsled will feel if Racine and Davidson are forced to slide down a hill in Salt Lake City together. Or how chilly the tag will be between O'Hare and a teammate he accused of tanking a race in December.

If all this sounds too familiar, it should.

The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 was designed to protect Olympic athletes by allowing them to submit disputes with their governing bodies to an arbitrator. Then came the Harding affair.

Tonya had already won a spot on the team when her two pals were accused of twirling a baton off Kerrigan's knee. As proof of Harding's deepening involvement trickled in, the USOC threatened to remove her from the team. Harding threatened right back with a $25 million lawsuit, and the lawyers wisely counseled the committee to keep their objections to themselves.

Harding skated at the Lillehammer Games, and not long after, most everybody forgot what the fuss was about. But not the USOC. With input from the committee, Congress went back and rewrote the law in 1998, tightening loopholes as they went.

It didn't help the USOC much. During the run-up to the Sydney Games, Greco-Roman hopefuls Keith Sieracki and Matt Lindland grappled at the Olympic trials, then before arbitrators, then back to the mat for a rematch, and then before a federal judge.

Sieracki won the original match, one round of arbitration and had the backing of the USOC. Lindland, though, won in federal court and wrestled at the Summer Games, eventually winning a silver medal.

But don't let anybody tell you that preparations went smoothly.

This is how one coach remembered the few weeks before the U.S. Greco-Roman team left to begin training in Australia, while it waited to find out whether Sieracki or Lindland was going with them.

''We took two team photos,'' he said. ''One with Keith, and the other with Matt.''

A warning to future Olympians: Learn to say ''cheese'' -- often.


Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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