Some bizarre, and some bonkers, legal cases in sport

All Olympic and Paralympic athletes are inspiring. The blood sweat and tears, early mornings and lack of booze and chocolate they must endure for years is something most of us don’t have anywhere near the willpower to achieve. But there’s inspiring and then there’s astonishing. Not only is South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius the first double leg amputee to compete in the Olympics, to do it he had to take on the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

Pistorius, known as the Blade Runner because of the carbon fibre artificial limbs he uses, took part in his first international competition for able-bodied athletes in 2007.  Instead of adulation he was hit by claims that his blades gave him an unfair advantage, despite the glaringly obvious fact that he has no legs below the knee.

Sports federations aren’t generally known for being progressive and the IAAF is no exception.  Later that year, it amended its competition rules to ban the use of ‘any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device’.  It claimed this revision was not aimed at Pistorius (yeah, right), but it made him ineligible for 2008 Summer Olympics.

You don’t get to run 400m in under a minute on prosthetic limbs without having fire in your belly, so Pistorius took the IAAF’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and got it overturned.  Even though this paved the way for his participation in London 2012, the IAAF was worried he could injure other athletes when running out of lanes in the 4x400m relay.  It said he could only run the first leg.  Having persuaded them he posed no risk, he ran the final leg in the final, with South Africa setting a season’s best time.

In the crazy world of the IAAF, it isn’t only having artificial limbs that could give you an unfair advantage.  Following 18-year-old Caster Semenya’s victory in the 800m at the 2009 World Championships, the IAAF ensured that, rather than being hailed as a heroine, she too was the focus of controversy by subjecting her to invasive gender testing and banning her from competition.

Displaying crass insensitivity, it claimed it did not suspect her of cheating, but wanted to determine whether she had a ‘rare medical condition’ giving her an unfair competitive advantage.  Having failed miserably to respect Semenya’s right to privacy and kept her out of competition for the best part of a year, the IAAF finally agreed she could compete with other women.  She won a silver medal at the London Olympics.

Semenya was by no means the first athlete to initiate, albeit unwittingly, a debate about gender in sport.  In 1976, 41-year-old Renee Richards was denied entry to the US Open having previously competed in the tournament as Richard H Raskind in 1960.  Richards, who had had sex reassignment surgery in 1975, contested the decision in the New York Supreme Court and won, entering the tournament the following year.

She lost in the first round of the women’s singles, but still had to rebut claims she had had undergone surgery to further her career:  ‘How hungry for tennis success must you be to have your penis chopped off in pursuit of it?’, which strikes me as a pretty good point.

These cases aren’t just about sport, but profoundly important issues around gender and disability,  so much so that the New Statesman named Caster Semenya as one of the 50 people that matter 2010 .  She had, it said, unintentionally instigated ‘an international and often ill-tempered debate on gender politics, feminism and race’ and become an inspiration to gender campaigners around the world’.  Not all legal cases in sport can claim such credit.

Remember Tonya Harding?  She’s the figure skater notorious for her involvement in the 1994 attack on fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan during a practice session for the US championships and forcing her to withdraw.  Tonya didn’t wield the police baton used to injure Kerrigan but she did help to cover up the assault and admitted as much.

You might think this would lead to an instant ban, but Harding competed in the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer after threatening legal proceedings against the US Olympic Committee if they removed her from the squad.  She came eighth while Kerrigan won silver.  She was later banned by the US Figure Skating Association for life and hasn’t managed to find anything quite so glamorous to do since.

As you’d expect, the US is not short of crazy sport legal cases.  Basketball player Michael Jordan (you’ve heard of him right?) filed lawsuits against two grocery stores in Chicago for using his image unlawfully in adverts.  Fair enough, you might think, a guy’s got to protect his image, even if he is one of the richest sports stars on the planet.

A federal judge disagreed and ruled the stores weren’t trying to ‘propose any kind of commercial transaction’ but simply expressing a view, which is constitutionally protected free speech.  The stores were congratulating Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, on his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, so Americans can expect to see more advertisements masquerading as tributes, probably not all quite so lofty as a hall of fame.

Poor Michael Jordan though, not only does he look like losing this case, he was also sued by a Michael Jordan lookalike for looking too much like Michael Jordan.  Allen Heckard claimed being mistaken as the basketball billionaire nearly every day for the past 15 years caused him ‘permanent injury and emotional pain and suffering’ and he threw Nike into the mix, saying its sponsorship of the NBA star had made the problem worse.

Heckard claimed $862million in damages, a number he arrived at by figuring ‘with my age and you multiply that times seven and, ah, then I turn around and, ah, I figure that’s what it all boils down to’.  CBS called the legal action ‘so outrageous that it actually gives frivolous lawsuits a bad name’.  Heckard later dropped the suit.

To be fair, we do crazy too.  In 2000 businessman Keith Larke sued Norwich City FC because they sold their star player shortly after he paid £12,000 for an executive box.  Larke said this reneged on a promise by Delia Smith, the television chef and club majority shareholder, during a radio interview that centre forward Craig Bellamy would not be sold.

I don’t know if Larke got his money back but  Bellamy, arguably if you are a Norwich fan, went on to bigger and better things.  Following her success with cranberries, prunes and cinnamon sticks, Delia Smith is currently helping sales of gammon to rocket.


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