Vanessa Mae’s Winter Olympic Games Scandal – a warning shot to sports governing bodies

Published 09 December 2014 | Authored by: Daniel Northall

When Vanessa Mae narrowly qualified to ski in the giant slalom at the XXII Olympic Winter Games, Sochi 2014, she described skiing at the Olympics as her “dream1.  That dream has rapidly turned into a nightmare, with Mae facing a four year ban from any event sanctioned by the International Ski Federation (FIS) and public disgrace for the alleged manipulation of four giant slalom races in Slovenia which allowed her to meet the requisite qualifying standard.2

How did it all go wrong? This blog addresses three areas: her ability to qualify, her alleged wrongdoing and the level of sanction and, finally, a look at the lessons which can be learned from an affair which exposed the tension between maintaining Olympic competition as the pinnacle of sporting endeavour and extending participation to underrepresented nations.

 

QUALIFYING FOR THE GIANT SLALOM

As the governing body for international skiing and snowboarding, FIS had a published qualification system for Sochi 2014.3

Paragraph 3 of the qualification system for alpine skiing events defined the A Qualification Standard and B Qualification Standard as follows:

3.1 A Qualification Standard

Competitors are eligible who are ranked within the top 500 in the respective event of the Olympic FIS Points List published at the end of the qualification period on 20.01.2014. The table under 3.5 defines eligibility in the different competitions:

3.2 B Qualification Standard

NOCs [National Olympic Committees] that do not have one competitor who meets the above qualification criteria, may enter one male competitor and one female competitor (‘basic quota’) in only the Slalom and Giant Slalom events, respectively NOCs that have only one male or one female competitor who meets the above qualification criteria, may enter one competitor of the other gender, on the condition that the male and/or female competitor(s) concerned has maximum 140 FIS points in the respective event on the Olympic FIS Points List published on 20.01.2014.

The Olympic FIS Points List is calculated using the average of five competition results for technical events (giant slalom and slalom) and three events for speed events (downhill, super g and super combined).

Mae did not meet the A Qualification standard and she would not have been able to compete at Sochi had she competed for Great Britain. British Ski and Snowboard, the national governing body for skiing and snowboarding, would only put forward athletes who had achieved a top-30 standing in a FIS World Cup event during the qualifying period. Mae had not even come close to achieving that standard.

Vanessa Mae also holds a Thai passport as a consequence of her father being a Thai national. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thailand did not have a competitor in the top 500 for any alpine event. She would qualify under the B Qualification Standard provided she had no more than 140 FIS points averaged over five competition results. If she could achieve this, she would be going to the games.

The calculation of FIS points is complicated4. In short, FIS points are inversely related to the ability of the skier. The lower the average points, the better the skier. FIS points are calculated as a product of the time between the winning competitor and the individual whose points are being calculated, in addition to the quality of the field, which is expressed as a race penalty. If the field is poor quality, a greater race penalty is applied to the participating athletes, meaning a higher award of FIS points. Conversely, if the field is high quality, a lower race penalty is applied meaning a lower award of FIS points. The race penalty avoids athletes entering poor quality competitions simply to lower their FIS points average.

Over four races in Krvavec, Slovenia on 17 and 19 February 20145 (one of which saw the then 35 year old skiing in the National Junior Championships), Mae was awarded FIS points of 115.79, 108.45, 137.95 and 131.15. Combining these scores with her earlier lowest score of 193.45 (at a competition in Sweden which has not been the subject of an investigation) produced a five-race average of 137.36, below the 140-point qualifying threshold. Mae had met the B Qualification Standard with a day to spare.

 

HER ALLEGED WRONGDOING AND SANCTION

Mae (competing under her father’s surname of Vanakorn) trailed in 67th and last of the competitors to complete both runs of the giant slalom, 50.1 seconds behind gold medallist Tina Maze of (ironically) Slovenia. Mae finished over 11 seconds behind the 66th placed athlete. To put these times into some context, the margin between gold and silver over both runs was a mere 0.07 seconds.

Mae’s FIS points for the two runs in Sochi came to 284.24, over double the B Qualifying Standard.

It is hardly surprising that many began to wonder how Mae qualified to compete at all.

Following a report of the Ski Association of Slovenia, published in July 2014, which was criticial of the organisation of the Krvavec races, FIS published its own decision on 11 November 2014, following an oral hearing on 3 October 2014.6

The findings were damning.  The panel found that the Krvavec races were only held and organised at the request of Vanessa Mae’s management in conjunction with the Thai Olympic Committee.

There was also sufficient evidence to cause the adjudication panel to conclude to their “comfortable satisfaction” that the results had been manipulated in such a way as to enable Mae to meet the qualifying standard.

This included securing the participation of an otherwise retired professional skier so as to lower the race penalty and thereby lower the likely FIS points of the other competitors (including Mae).

Times were officially recorded for skiers who did not complete their run or who were not in attendance at the race at all.

In a further startling finding, the adjudication panel was satisfied that an unnamed competitor was allowed to start her run part way down the course while an official triggered the timer by manually opening the timing wand at the head of the course. It was a finding of nothing less than organised cheating.

The full decision of the panel has not been published and so the explicit breaches of regulation found by the panel is not presently known.

However, The International Ski Competition Rules: Book IV Joint Regulations for Alpine Skiing states the following in relation to conduct that may attract a sanction:7

223 Sanctions

223.1 General Conditions

223.1.1 An offence for which a sanction may apply and a penalty be imposed is defined as conduct that:

    • is in violation or non-observance of competition rules, or
    • constitutes non-compliance with directives of the jury or individual members of the jury in accordance with 224.2 or
    • constitutes unsportsmanlike behaviour 

223.1.2 The following conduct shall also be considered an offence:

    • attempting to commit an offence
    • causing or facilitating others to commit an offence
    • counselling others to commit an offence

223.1.3 In determining whether conduct constitutes an offence consideration should be given to:

    • whether the conduct was intentional or unintentional,
    • whether the conduct arose from circumstances of an emergency

On the findings made by the panel, Mae’s conduct was unsportsmanlike and deliberate.

Mae’s participation in the events was also in knowing breach of competition rules. The panel found that the gates were not re-set following the first run of each event and this was in breach of paragraph 903.1 of the Joint Regulations for Alpine Skiing. Further, paragraph 613.7 makes the rather obvious point that competitors should start the course from the start signal, unlike the unnamed competitor in Krvavec.

As regards available sanction, paragraph 223.3.2 of the Joint Regulations provides that:

All competing competitors may be subject to the following additional penalties:

    • Disqualification
    • Impairment of their starting position
    • Forfeiture of prizes and benefits in favour of the organiser
    • Suspension from FIS events

Although a 4-year suspension from FIS accredited events may appear towards the upper end of the scale, one has to take into account the flagrancy of the breaches, the intention that sat behind them and the level of planning and organisation that the events in Krvavec required. Also, the rationale for the sanction is clear: although FIS cannot undo Mae’s participation at Sochi 2014, it can ensure that there is no possibility of her competing at Pyeongchang in 4 years’ time.

On 4 December 2014, CAS issued a press release confirming that Mae had lodged two appeals seeking to overturn both the decision to issue her with a four-year suspension and the decision to annul the Krvavec results which allowed her to qualify to compete at Sochi8.

Quite what the grounds for the appeal are remains unclear. Mae has not so far cast any explicit doubt on the integrity of the fact finding exercise undertaken by FIS and, given the extreme nature of the alleged evidence, it would be remarkable if FIS had made erroneous findings of fact.

 

STRIKING THE BALANCE

The Olympics, both summer and winter, have a long history of allowing underrepresented nations to compete even though their athletes are, to put it bluntly, not of Olympic standard. (See the infamous examples of Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, a British ski jumper who competed at the 1988 winter games in Calgary and Eric “the Eel” Moussambani, who competed for Equatorial Guinea in the 100m freestyle swimming at the 2000 summer games in Sydney).

Through the creation of the B Qualification Standard, FIS attempted to achieve a fair compromise between allowing underrepresented nations to participate without diluting too far the quality of the field. Although an average of 140 FIS points fell well below the standards of the world’s best, it would at least avoid the sort of underwhelming performance which Mae delivered in the giant slalom.

Mae’s participation is a source of such potential embarrassment because it suggests that those with wealth and influence can exploit the lower qualification standards in order to buy their way to the prestige and honour that comes with competing at the Olympics. That is a situation which is toxic to the meritocracy that lies at the heart of the Olympic movement. Her participation is also damaging to a sport, which is already perceived as having high barriers to entry.

One solution is for sports governing bodies to dispose of second-tier qualification standards. However, that would deny participation to small or undeveloped nations, or those nations who have no established tradition in a particular sport. It would also be inconsistent with Article 2(12) of the Olympic Charter, which requires the International Olympic Committee “to encourage and support the development of sport for all”.9

A second option is for National Olympic Committees to impose higher qualification standards as a precondition of selection. However, it seems unrealistic to expect the NOCs of truly underrepresented nations effectively to give up any prospect of Olympic participation. For example, British Ski and Snowboard could require higher qualification standards because it had the luxury of knowing that Great Britain would be reasonably well represented at Sochi on merit, both in snow sports and other winter sports. The same could not be said of Thailand.

Ultimately, if the allegations against Mae prove to be true, she was able to qualify through the corruption of a group of officials at a single event in Slovenia. She was then able to meet the qualification standard through a concentrated burst of manipulated performances. She exploited the precise wording of the B Qualification Standard, which FIS had chosen to adopt, that did not stipulate that a skier’s FIS points average had to be achieved over differently organised events. FIS would be well-advised to change the wording of future qualification systems. Mae might have been able to corrupt a single team of officials, but it was all the less likely that she could have done it, and got away with it, on more than one occasion.

 

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About the Author

Daniel Northall

Daniel Northall

Daniel Northall is an employment, commercial and sports lawyer at Littleton Chambers. His work has included a range of sports related disputes, including the dismissal of a Championship manager, and multiple claims against a rugby club in the Aviva Premiership brought by a former player.
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