What Goes Around, Comes Around

Published February 25, 2014

I have been blogging about the Sochi Olympic disputes that went to the Ad Hoc Court of Arbitration (CAS), which heard disputes during the course of the Olympic Games. There were four disputes, including one a Canadian matter filed by Alpine Canada Alpin (ACA) and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). I want to follow up on that one now the Games are complete and I have had an opportunity to look into it a bit more.

The actual dispute was not heard by either CAS or the original hearing panel of the International Ski Federation (FIS) as both ruled the complaint had been filed beyond the filing deadline and thus too late to be heard. I thought it would be interesting to look at the actual dispute because the other bodies refused to hear it, based on completely legitimate grounds (see the blogpost of Rachel Corbett, my Sport Law & Strategy Group colleague, on late filing of disputes).

The dispute was dubbed “pantsgate” by the media. Canada alleged that the French support staff illegally altered the pants of the French competitors just before the ski cross Big Final competition so as to give them an aerodynamic advantage contrary to FIS rules. Specifically, it was alleged that the French staff pulled the fabric of the pant legs back and tucked it into the boots of the competitors so as to create a wedge, or ‘flair’ in the pant leg.  A ‘flair’ is defined as “an external metal or plastic structure added to increase streamlining and reduce drag, especially on a high performance car, motor cycle, boat or aircraft.” We can now perhaps make two additions to the definition from a ski cross perspective: alteration to material of the pant leg to create a ‘flair-type’ configuration to increase streamlining of a skier. I don’t mean this to be sarcastic – Olympic races are often won by hundredths of a second – the difference such a flair might make.

The Canadians (and Slovenians, who filed an appeal too, also late) alleged a breach of the FIS International Competition Rules (ICR), Article 4511.4, which states:

Fastening devices such as elastic straps, zippers, nylon straps, buttons, snaps, Velcro, one or 2 sides tape, or any other methods shall not be used to tighten the suit material closer to the body or prevent the natural fall of the clothing.

Maybe the Canadians and Slovenians could have proved it, maybe not. They had some videotape of the French staff smoothing the pant legs, but that may not have been proof enough. The point is, they were too late to make their case. Had they won this case, it would have meant a gold medal for Brady Leman, who finished fourth behind three French competitors (but, Leman had an admitted bad start in the final and certainly did not blame “pantsgate” on his fourth place finish).

Here is the interesting part of this story. Flashback to 2010 – the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. Here’s the news tagline: "Clothes make the man, but Ricker’s pants helped make her an Olympic champion". Maëlle Ricker and Mike Robertson both won medals for Canada (gold and silver, respectively) in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. But there was much controversy about the Canadian snowboarders’ pants giving them an aerodynamic advantage.

The pants were designed and aerodynamically tested in the Ottawa National Research Council's wind tunnels as part of the Own The Podium (OTP) Top Secret program. Concessions were made with the athletes between aerodynamics and the clothing culture of snowboarding (that is, loose and ‘a little wobbly’). According to US snowboarder Nick Baumgartner back in 2010, “We wanted to keep the cool factor in snowboarding, we don’t want it to go speed suits [referring to the body hugging Alpine suits". Baumgartner, among others, felt the Canadian pants at the time broke a gentleman’s agreement among racers that pants would be kept at a certain width. That width has now been codified in the FIS rules as eight inches from the body down the leg.

Thanks to my colleague Greg Jackson (Brock University) for finding this February 20, 2010 (p. A7) quote from the National Post:

Canada's Mike Robertson, pictured, may have won the silver medal in men's boardercross, but his competitors claim he did not do it with style. His pants, they lament, are too tight. U.S. snowboarder Nate  Holland has been outspoken on the pants issue, and said form-fitting  pants like those worn by the Canadians push the limits of a  long-standing gentleman's agreement to keep racers in baggy pants. "I  looked at his pants," Mr. Holland told Sports Illustrated, referring  to Canadian boarder Drew Neilson, "and he looks at me and five minutes  later says, 'Man, I'm sorry, I'm changing, these are ridiculous.' He  knows where the soul of the sport should stay." For Mr. Holland, the soul of the sport lies in loose-fitting pants, or at least pants with a relaxed fit. Moving to tighter pants might give racers an  aerodynamic edge, but it threatens the future of the sport, Mr.  Holland said. "I think the problem we have now is the emo look," he told The New York Times, "and people trying to use that as an excuse for wearing tight clothing."

Back in 2010, Canadian snowboarder Rob Fagan (who placed fifth at the Vancouver Winter Olympics), was quoted in the Toronto Star (Feb. 28, 2010) as saying, “At the end of the day, it comes down to riding. The reason why our team did so well is not because of our pants, but it helped … I do think we looked good, though. It looked like we were there to win."

In 2014, at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, Canada won three medals in ski cross and snowboard cross (all women) and the French won four, including a sweep of the men's ski cross event. The French may have beaten us, but we still looked good, with our pants legs flapping in the wind!

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