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Original Issue

The Short Arm of the Law

U.S. track and field athletes have little defense against coercion by the sport's dictators

Taking hostages isn't viewed too kindly in American jurisprudence. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was not charmed when the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), the world governing body for track and field, invoked its "contamination rule" and threatened to suspend anyone who competed against 400-meter runner Butch Reynolds if Reynolds, who is fighting what seems a spectacularly botched drug suspension, was allowed to run at the U.S. Olympic Trials. In granting Reynolds a stay on June 20, Stevens wrote, "The IAAF's threat to enforce its eligibility decision—no matter how arbitrary or erroneous it may be—by punishing innocent third parties cannot be permitted to influence a fair and impartial adjudication of the merits of [Reynolds's] claim." Justice Stevens ordered The Athletics Congress (TAC), track's ruling body in the U.S., to let Reynolds run, which placed 31 400-meter men and TAC's leadership in a vise between the law of their land and the rules of their sport's infuriated international overseers.

This was the ugliest crisis in American track and field history, and the most revealing. It produced two heroes: Reynolds, who fought with electric determination to clear his name and run his race, only to finish fifth in the 400 final and have to settle for an alternate's spot on the U.S. team, and U.S. Olympic Committee treasurer and past Olympic track coach LeRoy Walker, who talked IAAF president Primo Nebiolo into grasping that TAC had to obey the Supreme Court and that Nebiolo must lower the sword he had raised against all the other 400-meter men in an effort to get at Reynolds.

Beyond that, though, there was much to make an old proponent of athletes' rights like me grind his teeth. Here was proof that the IAAF governs by coercion. Nebiolo said last month that the IAAF "will never accept a decision of any court in the world against our rules." That includes the contamination rule, which is simply a license to extort. Its logic is essentially, "You will do what we wish because we know where your family lives."

Even when the IAAF sent word, the saving word, on June 23 to U.S. officials that it would not act on its threat against the 400-meter men, the federation wrapped its clearance in another threat. Nebiolo and the IAAF Council had the gall to ask the U.S. Olympic Committee and TAC to press for a federal law to prevent "interference from the civil courts" in IAAF activities. Without such legislation, the IAAF said, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics "will risk grave damage to their programmes and to the athletes' participation." In other words, repeal a class of American citizens' rights to due process, or there could be problems for your party. The language was classic IAAF: extortion as usual. "We don't want to punish innocent athletes," said Istvan Gyulai, the IAAF general secretary, "but the IAAF will enforce its rules."

That morally indefensible statement is the real danger to full Olympic participation. There is absolutely no reason that any beef between an athlete and his federation can't be resolved without the federation gunning down bystanders. The best protection, the only protection, for American athletes against IAAF misuse of its power is, as Reynolds has shown, American law—which of course only applies to competition in this country.

The 400-meter men ran magnificently for having been dragged through a nerve-racking week. And in those tense hours before they were freed by compromise, they were right to seek unity. But, alas, it came in voting not to compete against Reynolds. Some feared the wrath of the IAAF. Many felt put-upon, saying, "He's won his point. He still probably won't be able to run in the Olympics. Why is Butch doing this to us?" Reynolds, in turn, wished that his opponents could see that you only protect liberties by exercising them, that he was taking on the colossus for them.

Had the 400-meter runners voted to run with Reynolds, thereby daring the IAAF to suspend them, and had they called for support not from TAC but from the real power in this struggle, America's finest track and field athletes, they might have found it. "If the IAAF had threatened to contaminate every athlete in the meet," said 1984 Olympic triple jump champion Al Joyner, "Jackie Joyner-Kersee and all the athletes coached by Bob Kersee would have competed in support of Butch and been thrown out of the Olympics." Bob Kersee spoke of the need to form an athletes' union as a countervailing force to the IAAF.

A little solidarity might have led to the prospect of an Olympics without American stars. But money has changed track. Athletes have agents now, and no agent—save Reynolds's wonderful firebrand, Brad Hunt—was heard urging an athlete to risk participation in the Olympics by demanding that the IAAF surrender its power to contaminate innocents.

Until they do, athletes can only put their faith in Justice Stevens, who wrote not only that he wouldn't bend to IAAF threats but also that "a decent respect for the incomparable importance of winning a gold medal in the Olympic Games convinces me that a pecuniary award is not an adequate substitute for the intangible values for which the world's greatest athletes compete."

Last week those values were far more apparent in his prose than in track's highest council.