Here is my column today in USA Today calling on the Olympic committee to consider an overhaul of Olympic rules to update procedures and remove archaic and discriminatory rules. While some may treat this as a call for a new Olympic legal team, it is merely an effort to get the Olympic to guarantee greater fairness with a systemic review of the rules for various sports. What bothers me is to see avoidable mistakes treated like just part of the games, even though they do great injustice to athletes who sacrificed so much to get to these cameras.
Just as some people go to Nascar races to watch the crashes, I admit I watch the Olympics in part for the rules challenges. They are a legal event in which world class athletes often find themselves faced with subpar procedures that strip them of points and sometimes medals.
The rules are a hodgepodge of arbitrary judgments established by dozens of sporting bodies, but the Olympics has a long history of clinging to them despite the ability to adopt better procedures.
Here are a few places where a new Olympic legal team might begin an overhaul:
•The cashless challenge. Some sports still require cash for a challenge. For example, when Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura stumbled off the pommel horse in the final event of the men’s team competition, the Japanese challenged and insisted that the fall was actually part of his dismount. Before the successful challenge could be heard, the Japanese had to scramble for cash.
A similar scene occurred in the fencing competition with South Koreans running around frantically hitting people up for cash. The image of coaches crouching around judges like crapshooters with wads of cash in hand is grotesquely out of place in the Olympics. Even if the Games insist on charging for challenges, it is hard to see why nations should not be trusted with a credit line or why payment should be demanded for challenges.
•Equal treatment. The Olympics continue to allow different rules to apply to men and women without any rational basis. For example, Olympic rules state that a female gymnast on vault can stop or break a run before touching the springboard without a deduction as long as she returns to the end of the runway within 30 seconds. But a male gymnast will receive a score of 0 for aborting a vault. Thus, two female gymnasts in the finals this year stopped their runs and were given the option of a second run without deductions — an option denied to their male counterparts.
Conversely, in diving, men are allowed to repeat one of their categories of dives while women are not.
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This might reflect another difference: Men must complete six dives while women must complete five. Why? These women are amazing athletes capable of the same number of dives as men.
•Justice is blind. The Olympics often come across as the last refuge of the world’s troglodytes resisting the simplest of technological advances. There is no greater example than the refusal of some sports to use instant replay. Last week at a critical point in the men’s volleyball competition, the Americans hit a ball that the Italians thought was out but the judge ruled for the Americans. NBC immediately confirmed that the ball was out. (Another bad call cost Russia a set against Bulgaria). However, the volleyball officials refuse to use instant replay, so a clearly unearned point was given to the United States.
Likewise, soccer officials have long barred the use of the technology. In the 2010 World Cup, referees refused to award a clearly good goal to England in its loss to Germany. Just last month, FIFA approved the use of goal-line technology for the 2014 World Cup, but it is still not mandated in the Olympics.
Other sports that resist technology include swimming, where officials cannot use underwater video available to television viewers. Thus, despite objections to an alleged illegal “dolphin” kick by South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh, he was able to collect the gold medal because judges cannot use underwater video technology.
The absurdities combined at the fencing competition, when Shin Lam thought that she had won her bout against Germany’s Britta Heidemann. But the judges suddenly announced that a time keeper had hit the button one second too early. (The time is rumored to have actually been 0.02 of a second.) Heidemann then used that second to add another touch and win the bout. But before the South Koreans could challenge, they first had to come up with the cash, so the world watched as the coaches ran around frantically trying to bum money for the challenge. A full hour passed as the world watched Shin sobbing and refusing to leave the piste.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of the United States at the 1972 Olympics in basketball. In that game, the United States thought it had won 50-49 when Soviet coaches objected that they had demanded a time out in the final seconds.
Ultimately, FIBA Secretary General Renato William Jones (who was watching the game) came down and overruled the referees and ordered an additional three seconds. Yet, the Soviets already used the three seconds due to an error in timing and, more important, Jones had no authority to issue any order of any kind. The Soviets scored a last second basket and won the gold. The U.S. team voted unanimously to refuse the silver medal.
None of this is meant to suggest the appearance of a litigation team walking at the opening ceremonies or a new ambulance-chasing event. Nonetheless, it is time to allow a different team to look at Olympic procedures when things go badly.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.