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Vanessa Mae’s Winter Olympic Games Scandal – A Warning Shot to Sports Governing Bodies

This article was first written for and published by LawInSport. Click here to view the original.

Daniel Northall

When Vanessa Mae narrowly qualified to ski
in the giant slalom at the XXII Olympic Winter Games, Sochi
2014, she described skiing at the Olympics as her “dream1.
That dream has rapidly turned into a nightmare, with Mae facing a four
year ban from any event sanctioned by the International Ski Federation
(FIS)
and public disgrace for the alleged manipulation of four giant slalom races in
Slovenia which allowed her to meet the requisite qualifying standard.2

How did it all go wrong? This blog addresses three areas:
her ability to qualify, her alleged wrongdoing and the level of
sanction and, finally,a look at the lessons which can be learned
from an affair which exposed the tension between maintaining Olympic competition
as the pinnacle of sporting endeavour and extending participation to under represented
nations. 

QUALIFYING FOR THE GIANT SLALOM

As the governing body for international skiing and
snowboarding, FIS had a published qualification
system
 for Sochi 2014.3

Paragraph 3 of the qualification system for alpine skiing
events defined the A Qualification Standard and B Qualification
Standard as follows:

3.1 A Qualification Standard

Competitors are eligible who are ranked within the top
500 in the respective event of the Olympic FIS Points List published at
the end of the qualification period on 20.01.2014. The table under 3.5 defines
eligibility in the different competitions:

3.2 B Qualification Standard

NOCs [National Olympic Committees] that do not
have one competitor who meets the above qualification criteria, may enter one
male competitor and one female competitor (‘basic quota’) in only the Slalom
and Giant Slalom events, respectively NOCs that have only one male or one female
competitor who meets the above qualification criteria, may enter one competitor
of the other gender, on the condition that the male and/or female competitor(s)
concerned has maximum 140 FIS points in the respective event on the Olympic FIS
Points List published on 20.01.2014.

The Olympic FIS Points List is calculated using
the average of five competition results for technical events (giant slalom and
slalom) and three events for speed events (downhill, super g and super
combined).

Mae did not meet the A Qualification standard
and she would not have been able to compete at Sochi had she competed
for Great Britain. British Ski and Snowboard, the national governing body
for skiing and snowboarding, would only put forward athletes who had achieved a top-30
standing in a FIS World Cup event during the qualifying period.Mae had
not even come close to achieving that standard.

Vanessa Mae also holds a Thai passport
as a consequence of her father being a Thai national.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thailand did not have a competitor in the top
500 for any alpine event. She would qualify under the B Qualification Standard
provided she had no more than 140 FIS points averaged over five competition
results. If she could achieve this, she would be going to the games.

The calculation
of FIS points
 is complicated4. In short, FIS points are
inversely related to the ability of the skier. The lower the average
points, the better the skier. FIS points are calculated as a product of the
time between the winning competitor and the individual whose points are being
calculated, in addition to the quality of the field, which is
expressed as a race penalty. If the field is poor quality,a greater
race penalty is applied to the participating athletes, meaning a higher
award of FIS points. Conversely, if the field is high quality,a lower
race penalty is applied meaning a lower award of FIS points. The race
penalty avoids athletes entering poor quality competitions simply to lower
their FIS points average.

Over four
races
 in Krvavec, Slovenia on 17 and 19 February 20145(one
of which saw the then 35 year old skiing in the National Junior Championships), Mae was
awarded FIS points of 115.79, 108.45, 137.95 and 131.15. Combining these scores
with her earlier lowest score of 193.45 (at a competition in Sweden which
has not been the subject of an investigation) produced a five-race
average of 137.36, below the 140-point qualifying threshold.Mae had
met the B Qualification Standard with a day to spare. 

HER ALLEGED WRONGDOING AND SANCTION

Mae(competing under her father’s surname of Vanakorn)
trailed in 67th and
last
 of the competitors to complete both runs of the giant
slalom, 50.1 seconds behind gold medallist Tina Maze of (ironically) Slovenia.Mae finished
over 11 seconds behind the 66th placed athlete. To put
these times into some context, the margin between gold and silver over both runs
was a mere 0.07 seconds.

Mae’s FIS points for the two runs in Sochi came to 284.24,
over double the B Qualifying Standard.

It is hardly surprising that many began to wonder
how Mae qualified to compete at all.

Following a report of the Ski Association of
Slovenia, published in July 2014, which was critical of the organisation of the
Krvavec races, FIS
published its own decision
 on 11 November 2014, following an oral
hearing on 3 October 2014.6

The findings were damning. The panel found that the
Krvavec races were only held and organised at the request of Vanessa Mae’s
management in conjunction with the Thai Olympic Committee.

There was also sufficient evidence to cause the
adjudication panel to conclude to their “comfortable
satisfaction” that the results had been manipulated in such a way as to enable Mae to meet
the qualifying standard.

This included securing the participation of an otherwise
retired professional skier so as to lower the race penalty and
thereby lower the likely FIS points of the other competitors (including Mae).

Times were officially recorded for skiers who did not
complete their run or who were not in attendance at the race at all.

In a further startling finding, the adjudication
panel was satisfied that an unnamed competitor was allowed to start
her run part way down the course while an official triggered the timer by
manually opening the timing wand at the head of the course. It was a finding
of nothing less than organised cheating.

The full decision of the panel has not been published and so
the explicit breaches of regulation found by the panel is not presently known.

However, The
International Ski Competition Rules: Book IV Joint Regulations for Alpine
Skiing
states the following in relation to conduct that may
attract a sanction:7

223 Sanctions

223.1 General Conditions

223.1.1 An offence for which a sanction may
apply and a penalty be imposed is defined as conduct that:

    • is
      in violation or non-observance of competition rules, or
    • constitutes
      non-compliance with directives of the jury or individual members of the
      jury in accordance with 224.2 or
    • constitutes
      unsportsmanlike behaviour

223.1.2 The following conduct shall also be considered an
offence:

    • attempting to commit
      an offence
    • causing
      or facilitating others to commit an offence
    • counselling
      others to commit an offence

223.1.3 In determining whether conduct constitutes an
offence consideration should be given to:

    • whether
      the conduct was intentional or unintentional,
    • whether
      the conduct arose from circumstances of an emergency

On the findings made by the panel,Mae’s conduct was
unsportsmanlike and deliberate.

Mae’s participation in the events was also in knowing breach
of competition rules. The panel found that the gates were not re-set following
the first run of each event and this was in breach of paragraph 903.1 of the
Joint Regulations for Alpine Skiing. Further, paragraph 613.7 makes the rather
obvious point that competitors should start the course from the start signal,
unlike the unnamed competitor in Krvavec.

As regards available sanction, paragraph 223.3.2 of the
Joint Regulations provides that:

All competing competitors may be subject to the
following additional penalties:

    • Disqualification
    • Impairment
      of their starting position
    • Forfeiture
      of prizes and benefits in favour of the organiser
    • Suspension
      from FIS events

Although a 4-year suspension from FIS accredited
events may appear towards the upper end of the scale, one has to take
into account the flagrancy of the breaches, the intention that sat behind them
and the level of planning and organisation that the events in Krvavec required.
Also, the rationale for the sanction is clear: although FIS cannot undo Mae’s
participation at Sochi 2014, it can ensure that there is no possibility of her
competing at Pyeongchang in 4 years’ time.

On 4 December 2014, CAS issued a press
release
 confirming that Mae had lodged two appeals seeking to overturn
both the decision to issue her with a four-year suspension
and the decision to annul the Krvavec results which allowed her to qualify to compete
at Sochi8.

Quite what the grounds for the appeal are remains unclear. Mae has
not so far cast any explicit doubt on the integrity of the fact finding
exercise undertaken by FIS and, given the extreme nature of the alleged
evidence, it would be remarkable if FIS had made erroneous findings of fact.

 

STRIKING THE BALANCE

The Olympics, both summer and winter, have a long
history of allowing under represented nations to compete even though their
athletes are,to put it bluntly, not of Olympic standard.
(See the infamous examples of Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards,a British
ski jumper who competed at the 1988 winter games in Calgary and Eric
the Eel” Moussambani, who competed for Equatorial Guinea in the 100m
freestyle swimming at the 2000 summer games in Sydney).

Through the creation of the B Qualification Standard, FIS
attempted to achieve a fair compromise between allowing
under represented nations to participate without diluting too far the
quality of the field. Although an average of 140 FIS points fell well below the
standards of the world’s best, it would at least avoid the sort of
underwhelming performance which Mae delivered in the giant slalom.

Mae’s participation is a source of such potential
embarrassment because it suggests that those with wealth and influence can
exploit the lower qualification standards in order to buy their way to the
prestige and honour that comes with competing at the Olympics. That is a situation
which is toxic to the meritocracy that lies at the heart of the Olympic movement.
Her participation is also damaging to a sport, which is already
perceived as having high barriers to entry.

One solution is for sports governing bodies to dispose
of second-tier qualification standards. However, that would deny participation to small
or undeveloped nations, or those nations who have no established tradition in a particular
sport. It would also be inconsistent with Article 2(12) of the Olympic Charter,
which requires the International Olympic Committee “to encourage
and support the development of sport for all
”.9

A second option is for National Olympic Committees to impose
higher qualification standards as a precondition of selection. However, it
seems unrealistic to expect the NOCs of truly under represented
nations effectively to give up any prospect of Olympic participation.
For example, British Ski and Snowboard could require higher qualification
standards because it had the luxury of knowing that Great Britain would be
reasonably well represented at Sochi on merit, both in snow sports and
other winters ports. The same could not be said of Thailand.

Ultimately, if the allegations against Mae prove to be
true, she was able to qualify through the corruption of a group
of officials at a single event in Slovenia. She was then able to meet
the qualification standard through a concentrated burst of
manipulated performances. She exploited the precise wording of the B
Qualification Standard, which FIS had chosen to adopt, that did not
stipulate that a skier’s FIS points average had to be
achieved over differently organised events. FIS would be well-advised to change
the wording of future qualification systems.Mae might have been able to corrupt a single
team of officials, but it was all the less likely that she could have done it,
and got away with it, on more than one occasion. 

References

  1. S
    Knapton,Winter Olympics 2014: violinist Vanessa-Maetoski
    for Thailand at the Sochi Games
    , Telegraph, 20 January 2014, viewed on
    17 November 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/winter-olympics/10583271/Winter-Olympics-2014-violinist-Vanessa-Mae-to-ski-for-Thailand-at-the-Sochi-Games.html
  2. ‘Decision
    of FIS hearing panel: Thai competitions in Slovenia’, fis-ski.com, 11
    November 2014, last viewed 2 December 2014, http://www.fis-ski.com/news-multimedia/news/article=decision-fis-hearing-panel-thai-competitions-krvavec-slo.html
  3. International
    Ski Federation ‘Qualification systems for XXII Olympic Winter Games,
    Sochi 2014: Skiing, Alpine’, fis-ski.com, last viewed 2 December 2014, http://data.fis-ski.com/media/olympic-games/sochi2014-18-09-2012-qualification-system-fis-english.pdf
  4. See
    clause 4.2 onwards in the Rules for the FIS Alpine Pointsat http://www.fis-ski.com/mm/Document/documentlibrary/AlpineSkiing/02/06/69/FisptsEdition1415_v5_10714_English.pdf
  5. ‘FIS
    Biography of Vanessa Vanakorn’, fis-ski.com, last viewed 2
    December 2014 http://data.fis-ski.com/dynamic/athlete-biography.html?sector=AL&competitorid=168683&type=result
  6. Ibid
    at 2
  7. The
    International Ski Competition Rules: Book IV Joint Regulations for Alpine
    Skiing, http://www.fis-ski.com/mm/Document/documentlibrary/AlpineSkiing/03/29/54/ICR_clean_12082014_Neutral.pdf (see
    section 233 – Sanctions)
  8. ‘Media
    Release, Alpine Skiing,Vanessa Vanakorn appeal to the
    Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)’, www.tas-cas.org, last viewed on 7
    December 2014, http://www.tas-cas.org/d2wfiles/document/7903/5048/0/Media20Release20Vanakorn20%28English%29.pdf
  9. International Olympic Committee, Olympic Charter, www.olympic.org,http://www.olympic.org/documents/olympic_charter_en.pdf

 

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