Originally created 05/27/98

Revised Amateur Sports Act deals with athletes rights, lawsuits



Athletes would find it harder to sue for a berth in the Olympics and similar events under a proposed change in the federal law that governs amateur sports in the United States.

The proposal from Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, would bar courts from issuing injunctions against the U.S. Olympic Committee over athlete participation within 30 days of the start of the Olympics, Paralympics or Pan American Games if the USOC formally declared it could not settle the dispute in time.

Such a measure, part of a broad-based rewriting of the 20-year-old Amateur Sports Act, could have saved the USOC from one of its most embarrassing recent moments -- clearing the way for Tonya Harding to compete in the 1994 Winter Games after the figure skater filed a $25 million lawsuit against the committee just days before the event began.

At the time, the USOC was considering keeping Harding out of the games because of reports of the skater's involvement in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. Harding later pleaded guilty to covering up the attack and was barred from Olympic-level skating.

"This bill would give athletes more certainty about their rights ... but at the same time give the Olympic committee improved authority to resolve disputes that arise just before the Olympics," Stevens said. "This bill is not an antidote for any specific incident but would probably help in a situation like the one that occurred in figure skating just before the start of the 1994 Winter Olympics."

After the Harding-Kerrigan scandal, the USOC tightened its own eligibility rules to try to close loopholes in control other athlete behavior just before the games. But, at a series of Senate hearings, committee officials also asked that their position be clarified in the federal law that gives the USOC the power to pick and send teams to the Olympics and other international events.

The proposed revisions would make current USOC rules on athlete participation in committee decision-making part of federal law, strengthen due-process provisions and require the committee to hire an ombudsman to help athletes with questions about their rights to compete.

It also would change the name of the law, to the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act.

Stevens, chief sponsor of the original act, said the proposed revisions were needed to stay in line with changes in the Olympic community, including one that alternates the Summer and Winter Games every two years.