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Marquette Law professor Mitten to help resolve Olympic-size disputes at Sochi games

By Chris Jenkins

The flight to Sochi, Russia is a long one, but at least Marquette Law School professor Matthew Mitten is bringing along something to read: A 700-page document produced by Marquette sports law students that details several years’ worth of international sports arbitration cases.

The not-so-light reading will help Mitten prepare for his significant role at the 2014 Winter Olympics. He’ll be one of nine international arbitrators available to quickly resolve whatever disputes might come up during the games.

Beginning with the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) established an “ad hoc” division that works on-site to hear and quickly resolve disputes that inevitably come up during the games.

“Its creation is based on the premise that no athlete should be left knocking at the gate,” Mitten says. “So if an athlete thinks they’re being unfairly prevented from participating in the Olympics, they would have a right to bring their action before us.”

The most frequent cases involve questions about an athlete’s nationality, athletes who believe they were unfairly left off a team  as well as disputes over the results of performance-enhancing drug tests and competition results.

Mitten is the director of Marquette’s National Sports Law Institute, and he was on an NCAA committee that adjudicated appeals brought by student-athletes who failed drug tests from 1999-2005.

“The CAS arbitration system is designed to provide a forum for quick, efficient and fair resolution of disputes, to avoid the possibility of ‘home cooking’ by going into a national court,” Mitten says.

When a case comes up during the games, the President of the CAS ad hoc division (Michael Lenard, a Shorewood, Wis. native and member of the National Sports Law Institute), will select a three-member arbitration panel to hear both sides and issue a decision. As an American, Mitten would not be selected to hear cases involving U.S. athletes.

“These cases move very quickly,” Mitten says. “The case must be resolved within 24 hours from the time it’s filed, because you can’t delay the games. The parties have to be given a full opportunity to be heard, and the panel has to deliberate and reach a consensus within this time frame.”

This year’s games could bring a new kind of dispute between the games’ governing body, the International Olympic Committee, and competing athletes looking to make bold statements about a controversial Russian law that has attracted international attention in the run-up to the games.

“Another issue that might arise is Russia enacted an anti-gay propaganda rule,” Mitten says. “And, of course, the IOC is very inclusive. But the IOC also has a rule which prohibits political protests. So if an athlete publicly protests or expresses some disapproval of this Russian law, he or she could potentially be disciplined by the IOC, which could lead an athlete challenging any disciplinary action before the CAS.”

Mitten is ready for whatever kind of case might come up. He has been a member of CAS’s pool of approximately 300 arbitrators since 2007, but this is his first time working at the Olympics one of the biggest honors of his career, he says.

Although the CAS panel isn’t required to consider decisions in past Olympic disputes to be ironclad precedents, as a court of law might, arbitrators typically do look to previous decisions for guidance.

“There needs to a consistent body of law so all members of the Olympic movement, including sports organizations and athletes are treated fairly,” Mitten says. “So the focus is very much going to be on finding, what are the relevant facts, and what would be a fair and just result based upon the facts, as well as how have similar cases been resolved in the past?”

The trip isn’t exactly fun and games; he’ll only have an hour or two to report for duty if he’s selected to serve on a panel, so he probably won’t wander too far from the official hotel. Still, Mitten expects it to be an enjoyable experience that will enable him to meet people from all over the world and to attend many Olympic events.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Mitten says. “To have the opportunity to meet and work with a distinguished group  of arbitrators from several countries.The rules of the game need to be uniform, so everyone gets a fair chance. The dispute resolution procedure needs to be the same way.”

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