Ski Cross Controversy

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How a crease in the French racers’ pants led to a unique Olympic protest.

by JANET LOVE MORRISON in the Fall 2014 issue

At the Sochi Winter Olympics last February four appeals were taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). One of those appeals involved Canada. This one was matchless.

The CAS is an international body established to settle disputes related to sports. Its headquarters is in Lausanne, Switzerland, with courts in New York, Sydney and Lausanne. Temporary courts are established during the Olympics in the host cities. The Ad Hoc Division (AHD) of the CAS was first assembled for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. The intent is to provide a final resolution within 24 hours for any dispute, and services are free for participants in the Olympics.

On February 20, at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the Ski Cross “big final” started at 13:30 and ended at 14:49 with Jean-Frédéric Chapuis (gold), Arnaud Bovolenta (silver) and Jonathan Midol (bronze) becoming the first Olympic-podium sweep for France and contributing to France’s best-ever Olympic medal haul. Canada’s Brady Leman clipped the tail of the skier in front of him going for a pass exiting the last turn and finished 4th.

So what happened to provoke the Canadians and Slovenians to protest?

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It was in the start, with athletes, coaches, service personnel and Olympic organizers in position to begin the race, that International Ski Federation’s (FIS) Technical Director-Delegate Jyrki Saamanen of Finland witnessed French Ski Federation support staff curiously pulling the material on the lower pant legs of the French riders in the final heat. Saamanen’s concern was that it would create a fairing effect (to increase streamlining and reduce drag) around the lower leg.

Saamanen notified Chris Robinson of Canada, FIS jury advisor-equipment controller, and did not take any other immediate action at that moment to investigate this unusual behaviour. Robinson, as required, subsequently tested the French riders’ suits following the medal and flower ceremony, dismissing the issue based on material stiffness and wetness from the spring-like conditions.

Concurrently, Canadian Assistant Head Coach Willy Raine and team serviceman Rod Honey witnessed the same thing. Indeed, Raine took photos and radioed Eric Archer, head coach of the Canadian Ski Cross Team and course setter.

At 15:40 Raine went to the Canadian technical room to review the photos and video footage. Half an hour later he phoned Dave Ellis, athletic director of Ski Cross in Canada, and shared his suspicions, then e-mailed his photos to Ellis. At 16:40 Ellis called Robinson to inform him but Robinson chose not to act.

Saamanen told Ellis he would discuss the shaping of the French competitors’ pants at the coaches meeting scheduled for 17:00 the same day. Saamanen had stated before the meeting began that he had advised the French coaches, “Whatever you are doing, don’t do it again at the women’s event tomorrow,” but he did not bring up the subject in the meeting until Ellis asked him to comment.

Some wondered if this was confirmation that the French team was in violation, although no sanction was imposed.

At 22:33 the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the Slovenia Olympic Committee (SOC) filed appeals. They alleged the French team’s support staff illegally altered the pants by pulling the lower pant leg to create a “fairing,” a sharp crease along the back that is then hardened with snow or other liquid just before competition to give an aerodynamic edge. The SOC and COC claimed that Chapuis, Bovolenta and Midol violated FIS freestyle rules.

At 16:20 the following day, February 21, the FIS Jury met to discuss the protest and stated the following: The race ended at 14:50, therefore, the jury members cannot take any other actions as the results are official. (FIS Article 3050.3 states protests need to be submitted within 15 minutes of the published results.)

On February 22 at 13:00 Alpine Canada (ACA) and the COC submitted an application to the CAS Ad Hoc Division to immediately disqualify all the French competitors and make corrections to the final standings. The CAS appointed Luigi Fumagalli of Italy, Patrick Lafranchi of Switzerland and Matthew Mitten of the U.S. as arbitrators to form the Panel.

At 20:25 the SOC submitted its application, and the Panel granted FIS and the National Olympic Committee of France (CNOSF) a deadline of 21:00 to respond. France wrote its observations, and minutes later FIS requested that the Panel dismiss the Canadian and Slovenian applications. FIS was denied and a hearing was set for February 22, the same day, at 23:10.

Video evidence was presented and witnesses were heard on both sides. FIS and the French argued there wasn’t any reason why the protest couldn’t have been filed immediately after the race. The Panel, concluding that the application did not comply with the 15-minute rule and the Canadians and Slovenians were too late to make their case, stated, “The natural expectation of athletes, sporting governing bodies, spectators and the public [is] that competition results are final unless promptly and properly protested within a reasonable amount of time after the competition ends.” The case was dismissed and the hearing ended at 03:30 on February 23.

The CAS or FIS didn’t ever hear the actual dispute as both ruled the complaint had been filed beyond the deadline and that the ACA and COC hadn’t provided any evidence of why their delay should be excused.

Races are won by hundredths of a second, the difference such a “fairing” might make. So where does it all go from here? Many wondered if FIS would consider changing the 15-minute deadline and it’s strict enforcement for an appeal. Or perhaps that FIS needs a person in the finish with the correct forms and a rulebook to properly fill out the protest form.

Should the testing begin before competitors get into the start? Or does FIS need to revise the whole Ski Cross clothing rules? What are the real needs for the clothing rules and how can they be implemented in a better way?

Although the Panel didn’t explicitly say so, some observers believe had the protest been filed, even just a few minutes after the 15-minute deadline, it may have considered the merits of the appeal. Would the Panel have taken a harder look at it if the French had won only the gold, thus less attention garnered by the media?

Because their suits passed the test at the bottom of the course and FIS and CAS never had to make a ruling, the French likely took this as confirmation that they didn’t do anything wrong. But as athletes and coaches asked, if the French had nothing to hide, why didn’t they allow a full inquiry? By the time athletes met again after the Olympics at a competition in Arosa, Switzerland, racers from several other nationalities pasted stickers on their helmets that read simply, I don’t cheat.

As Canadians, it’s always nice to see a maple leaf on the podium, but we can also celebrate a gold medal regardless of where the winner comes from—as long as the win is an honest one. However, there will always be politics in the Olympics and the Sochi Games were no different.

At that level of sport, we expect athletes and coaches to rise to be the best they can be, not only in their sport but also as human beings, for they have the opportunity to inspire others.

“Regardless of nationality, if I witness a wrongdoing, I have to act,” said Raine. “We knew it was a long shot based on timing, but at the very least we had to speak up and get it documented. What they did was cheating and not allowed according to the FIS rules. It was a tough lesson as a coach.”

French Ski Cross coaches were contacted for this story; there was no reply.


Janet Love Morrison
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