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Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Did Inaction Lead to The Worst Performing U.S. Olympic Boxing Team in History?
Whether U.S.A. Boxing Could Have Done More to Get Medal Favorite Gary Russell, Jr. the Opportunity to Compete in the Beijing Games
by Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq.
During the early morning of August 8, 2008, United States Olympian Gary Russell, Jr., the boxing team’s bantamweight (119 lbs.) entrant, went for a run in a vinyl sauna jacket around the Olympic Village in Beijing to lose his final one pound and four ounces in order to make the bantamweight limit for the weigh-in a few hours later. That morning, for the first time in a deep amateur boxing career in which Russell earned nearly 200 victories and won such tournaments as the 2004 Junior Olympics, and the 2005 U.S. Championships and National Golden Gloves, Russell’s body failed him. He collapsed from dehydration upon returning from his run and was unconscious for close to five minutes. Though he was re-hydrated in advance of the morning’s weigh-in, Russell was not medically cleared to weigh-in and was disqualified from the Olympic competition. In an instant, 16 years of toil and achievement reached a heartbreaking conclusion for the U.S. bantamweight. A boxer that was once compared to Sugar Ray Leonard by the legend himself was rendered ineligible to try to match Leonard’s 1976 Olympic Games achievement.
In the absence of Gary Russell, Jr., who was generally regarded as a strong medal favorite, the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team went on to its single worst showing in Olympic history. The team won a single medal, a bronze in the heavyweight division. While officials from USA Boxing, the organization in charge of amateur boxing in United States, asserted that they reviewed the applicable laws surrounding the amateur boxing competition to see if they could petition for Russell to weigh-in later but found nothing in the applicable laws from which to construct an argument, a review of those laws raises serious questions as to whether that was the case. This article will focus on the relevant provisions of the laws applicable to amateur boxing in Beijing Olympics and show why the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team may have been the worst in history due to little more than the default and inaction of USA Boxing.
The International Amateur Boxing Association Technical and Competition Rules
The International Amateur Boxing Association Technical and Competition Rules (hereinafter “AIBA Rules”), effective May to August 31, 2008, were the rules that governed the amateur boxing competition in the Beijing Olympics. Rule 5.1.1 of the AIBA Rules reads:
“[t]he contestants of all weights should be ready to weigh-in on the day before the start of the competition. The time from the end of the weigh-in to the start of the first day of the competition should not be less than 6 hours. The time from the end of the weigh-in to the start of the remaining days of competition should not be less than 3 hours. The Technical Delegate of the event reserves the right to relax this condition, if unavoidable circumstances occur and after consultation with the Chairman of the Medical Jury.” (emphasis added)
It is epidemic in both the amateur and professional boxing worlds that no matter how hard many athletes prepare, there is generally a last minute drive to take off the final excess weight in advance of their pre-fight weigh-ins. While a majority of boxers lose the weight without complications, including Russell himself on scores of occasions, the effort often exacts a toll on a boxer’s body. This is what led to Russell’s collapse on the morning of August 7, 2008.
After Russell’s collapse, the question from a legal standpoint was whether, under the AIBA Rules, a petition could have been made to relax the conditions of Rule 5.1.1 in order to allow him to weigh-in at a later time. Russell, as well as the other bantamweight boxers in the Olympics, were not scheduled to have their first round bouts until August 12, 2008, four days after the weigh-in. More importantly, Russell’s effort to lose the final one pound and four ounces resulted in a medical emergency, his lapse into unconsciousness. A cognizable argument could have been advanced by USA Boxing that Russell’s collapse was an “unavoidable circumstance” of his effort to make weight. The Chairman of the Medical Jury at the Beijing Games could have then been consulted about the situation and given his approval for the Technical Delegate to “relax [the] condition” that Russell had to weigh-in at the same time as the other boxers in the competition and have his opportunity to recognize his Olympic dream.
There are three major counterpoints to the above argument. The first is that allowing Russell to weigh-in later would have given him an unfair advantage over his fellow competitors. However, given that Russell had already been re-hydrated by the time that the weigh-in actually took place, the short delay would not have created much of an advantage. Even more detrimental to that argument is that while the amateur boxing competition, as a whole, began the day after the weigh-in, the bantamweights were not scheduled to have their first round matches until August 12, 2008, four days after the weigh-in. Any advantage that Russell could have gained, therefore, from being allowed to weigh-in later would have been moot, as each bantamweight had ample opportunity to re-hydrate by that point. Furthermore, if anything, Russell would have been at a disadvantage as it would have been Russell and Russell alone that had the least time to re-hydrate before his first round match. Even then, he had two to three more days than professional boxers generally do to carefully replenish himself.
The second major counterpoint is that Russell’s collapse did not qualify as an “unavoidable circumstance” since he lost consciousness for a reason related to the competition, and not because of any circumstances that were both “unavoidable” and unrelated to his efforts to make weight. The problem with this argument is twofold. First, interpreting the Rule 5.1.1 that way effectively punishes the athlete for his thoroughness and diligence in doing his part to participate in the competition. It seems unlikely that the intention of Rule 5.1.1 was to create a rigid, non-appealable punishment of competitors that encountered trouble making weight. Secondly, given the date of the enactment of the applicable AIBA Rules (May 2008), the idea that Russell’s collapse was not an “unavoidable circumstance” was an open legal question in the absence of any guiding precedent, as it had likely not been interpreted as yet by either AIBA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport, to which AIBA’s decisions can be appealed. Without such precedent, USA Boxing effectively let its own interpretation as to what constitutes an “unavoidable circumstance” guide it and declined to make the necessary argument to make sure Russell’s ability to compete was protected to fullest extent under the AIBA Rules.
The third major counterpoint relates to Rule 7 of the AIBA Rules. Rule 7 will be explored below.
Rule 7.1.1 mandates that “[t]he draw for the Olympic Games shall be held one day before the competition.” At the same time, Rule 7.6 states that “ [i]n any case, until the last weight category draw is completed, if there is any mistake or unavoidable circumstance taking place, the Technical Delegate has the right to order the particular weight draw(s) to be done again.” (emphasis added). Though these two subparts of the same rule appear to be in conflict with each other, strict adherence to Rule 7.1.1 would have made it impossible to find “any mistake or unavoidable circumstance taking place” at the Beijing Olympics that would lead a particular weight draw to be done again, no matter what had happened to any of the individual boxers.
Further, the verbiage “taking place” within Rule 7.6 suggests that the rule is meant to address problems with individual boxers during the scheduled time of a weigh-in. At the time that Russell collapsed, he had an 105 fever and was extremely dehydrated. Even with medical assistance, the effects of each had not fully passed by the scheduled time of the weigh-in. In short, Russell’s medical problems were still “taking place” at the time. And, as discussed above, an argument could have been forwarded by USA Boxing that his collapse was an “unavoidable circumstance” of his efforts to make weight for the Olympic competition. The third major counterpoint to the argument in favor of the application of Rule 5.1.1 in order to seek a later weigh-in, that the draw for the Olympic Games had to be held one day before the competition in accordance with Rule 7.2, could have therefore been challenged by USA Boxing by virtue of the wording of Rule 7.6. This is especially true when one considers that the bantamweights were not scheduled for their first round matches until four days later, as there would not have been a real disruption of a draw in which no bouts had occurred.
Olympic Movement Medical Code
The Preamble of the Olympic Movement Medical Code (hereinafter “Medical Code”) states that the Medical Code “is intended to apply to the Olympic Games” and “recalls the basic rules regarding best medical practices in the domain of sport and the safeguarding of the rights and health of the athletes.” Under Chapter 1, Section 5.4 of the Medical Code, “[a]thletes have the right to choose and change their own physician, health care provider or health care establishment, provided that this is compatible with the functioning of the health care system. They have the right to request a second opinion.” Russell was seen by doctors the morning of August 8, 2008, who revived him, but did not clear him to weigh-in. It is unclear, however, as to whether Russell sought a second opinion on his own or had even been advised by USA Boxing that he could seek one. A second opinion, provided after he had been revived, could have resulted in a medical clearance for him to weigh-in. As an Olympian, Russell was entitled to same under the Medical Code.
A counterargument to Russell’s right to a second opinion arises from Chapter 1, Section 6.8 of the Medical Code. Chapter 1, Section 6.8 reads, in relevant part, that : “[a]t sports venues, it is the responsibility of the team or competition physician to determine whether an injured athlete may continue in or return to the competition.” The argument could, therefore, be made that it was within USA Boxing and its physicians’ discretion to determine whether Russell was medically capable to continue under the Medical Code. However, the fact remains that Russell was entitled to a second opinion under the Medical Code and does not appear to have received one. When the two provisions of the Medical Code are read together, it would appear that, once a second opinion was given, it would then fall to USA Boxing and its physicians to determine whether Russell should be given medical clearance to weigh-in.
There is a strong indication that USA Boxing did not make every effort to save the Olympic bid of Gary Russell, Jr. after his collapse before the weigh-in in Beijing. It is a basic canon of any attorney’s practice to make any and all non-frivolous arguments that can be made in the advancement of the interests of your client. Had USA Boxing done the same with regard to Russell, he could have at least come home from Beijing knowing that the team that he spent 16 years toiling to become part of did everything they could for him, regardless of whether or not any petition was successful. And if such a petition had been successful, one of the team’s top medal favorites could have attempted to save the team from its worst showing in Olympic history and fulfill a lifelong dream.
[Post-script: I should note that while dehydration was the reason cited in the press, Russell's collapse was never conclusively linked to dehydration by medical personnel in Beijing. Indeed, several other people encountered similar medical problems during their stays in Beijing and a number of possible etiologies have been discussed. The prospect that it was not, in fact, dehydration that caused Russell to collapse and instead was something else outside of Russell's knowledge or control would only bolster the above arguments in Russell's favor.]
Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq. is an attorney at the New York law firm of Heidell, Pittoni, Murphy & Bach, L.L.P. He is also a New York State licensed boxing manager and the Chairman of the Sports Law Committee of the New York County Lawyers Association. Mr. Haberman is Gary Russell, Jr.’s attorney. ©
 Les Carpenter, Wilder, Yanez Win to Keep Hopes Alive for American Fighters, Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2008, at E07.
 According to Appendix A of the AIBA Rules, the duties of a Technical Delegate include “[t]o supervise/monitor the arrangements for the draw, the weigh-in, the medical examination and the daily schedule of the contests” and “[t]o liase and cooperate with the Chairpersons of the Referees & Judges, Technical & Rules and Medical Commission, whose duties, powers and responsibilities are outlined in the AIBA Statutes.” The Olympic boxing competition was mandated to have two Technical Delegates pursuant to AIBA Rules for Competition Officials Rule 1.2.3.
 Carpenter, supra. An AIBA spokesperson suggested that the rule was meant more for “natural disasters” and that it could not have been considered unless Russell had actually shown up for the weigh-in. It should be noted though that AIBA spokesperson did not note whether the term “unavoidable circumstances” had ever been interpreted that way by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is the legal body employed for the resolution and appeal of disputes related to the statutes, regulations, and decisions passed by AIBA, AIBA confederations, or AIBA members. See Article 12(e) of the International Boxing Association Statutes.
 Les Carpenter, Boxer’s Parents: ‘No Fat to Burn’, Washington Post, Aug. 10, 2008, at D11.