Sporting events need officials to umpire/referee the competition. Inevitably, not everyone will agree with all decisions made by these officials. From professional football codes to the local sporting field, there are ‘controversial’ decisions made every weekend around the globe. Sometimes this adds to the drama of the event, and at other times, the official has clearly made a mistake. Occasionally, there are other motivations at play.
Sportingnews.com reported after the Matildas loss to Sweden at the Tokyo Olympic Games that ‘all of Australia was collectively confused as Sam Kerr had a goal ruled out in the first half…subsequent replays of the incident failed to pinpoint a clear foul occurring prior to Kerr’s volley, with Australian fans reacting angrily on social media’.
Social media would have lit up if it existed in 1980 when an on-field official at the Moscow Olympic Games triple jump belatedly raised a red flag on a jump which would have seen Australian’s Ian Campbell take the gold medal ahead of a Soviet Union (now Russia) athlete.
This newsletter considers the circumstances when field of play decisions of an official may be legally challenged.
Field of play decisions and lex sportiva
One of the defining principles of sports law (or as sports law jurisprudence is often called lex sportiva), is the immunity enjoyed by officials for their ‘field of play decisions’, known as lex ludica.
The Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) clarified these principles in the decision of Segura v International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). Segura sought a declaration that he was wrongfully disqualified from the 20km race walk event at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and should have been declared the winner. The CAS panel held that:
CAS arbitrators do not review the determinations made on the playing field by judges, referees, umpires, or other officials who are charged with applying what are sometimes called ‘rules of the game’…[T]hey are not, unlike on-field judges, selected for their expertise in officiating the particular sport.
Confirming the general authority of officials in field of play decisions, the CAS provided in Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) & Cian O’Connor v. Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), that a field of play decision can only be reviewed on the basis that a:
…decision is tainted by fraud, bad faith, bias, arbitrariness, or corruption.
In our article on a controversial decision in the 2019 NRL Grand Final, Six again – when the rub of the green doesn’t go your way, we compared an on-field decision to the legal principle of estoppel, and considered what the outcome would be if similar facts occurred in a commercial transaction.
The decisions of the referee in a football game, or generally on the sporting field, may have commercial consequences, but it is not in conjunction with a commercial transaction. Accordingly, lex sportiva applies to such decisions, rather than general or equitable legal principles such as estoppel, which may otherwise apply to a commercial transaction.
For a party such as the Matildas in the Olympic semi-final against Sweden, or the Canberra Raiders in the 2019 NRL Grand Final to challenge a field of play decision through the CAS, they would need to establish that the referee’s decision was not merely a mistake or error, but that the ‘decision is tainted by fraud, bad faith, bias, arbitrariness or corruption’.
This lex ludica field of play principle applies irrespective of whether the on-field decision is later identified as having been incorrect. As the CAS held in Yang Tae Young & Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) v International Gymnastics Federation (FIG):
An error identified in hindsight, whether admitted or not, cannot be a ground for reversing the result of a competition
Bad faith, arbitrariness, or corruption
In Japan Triathlon Union v International Triathlon Union, it was confirmed that a field of play decision may be reviewed where the following elements exist:
- The decision was made by an umpire, referee or other official.
- The effects of the decision are limited to the field of play.
- The decision was made in bad faith, arbitrariness, or corruption.
Here, the CAS held that the onus lies with the appellant to prove the event officials’ decision was made in bad faith, arbitrariness, or corruption. While the CAS recognise this creates significant hurdles for review, it is necessary to prevent the deterioration of the lex lucida principle.
Similarly, in Yang Tae Young & Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) v International Skating Union, the CAS held that for a review of a field of play decision, there must be evidence which generally must be direct evidence of bad faith.
Ian Campbell’s Russian red card
At the 1980 Olympic Games, on his fourth attempt in the triple jump final, Australia’s Ian Campbell jumped over 17.5 meters to take the lead and break the existing Olympic record.
With a fist raised to the air and a moment of complete elation, Campbell realised he ‘blew [the Olympic record] out of the water’.
However, the elation was short-lived. The Soviet official belatedly raised a red flag, signalling a foul. An immediate raking of the pit was then undertaken before any chance of review could be performed. This conduct by the Soviet officials raised other ‘red flags’ in many spectators and independent officials’ minds, noting it allowed the Soviet athletes to take the gold and silver medals.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) now requires the independence of officials in accordance with section 45 and 46 of the Olympic Charter. The world governing body for a sport, World Athletics (formerly the IAAF), must select national and international technical officials and submit them to the IOC for approval to ensure the independence of official decisions.
When Campbell competed, World Athletics had no such jurisdiction during the conduct of his event, with independent international officials having been removed. Further to this, the delayed response of the official and the ruling of nine out of twelve combined jumps as fouls to the only non-Soviet athletes, lends itself to possible bad faith, arbitrariness, or corruption by the relevant Soviet officials. The Australian athletics manager lodged a protest at the time, however the protest was dismissed.
Noting the need for direct evidence of bad faith, arbitrariness, or corruption, if the Ian Campbell matter was heard by the CAS, any communication between the track referees and the specific triple jump official who raised the belated red flag, would be relevant if indeed it was available as evidence. The significant delay by the official in raising the red flag would be relevant to this matter if heard by the CAS, as it could reasonably be argued that the delay was attributable to the relevant official only raising the red flag when instructed to do so when it was realised that Campbell’s jump would claim the gold medal, relegating the Soviet athletes to silver and bronze.
It was reported that Campbell recalled the moment he saw the official looking back for instructions on whether he should officially measure the jump, and then, the belated red flag from his colleague. Complaints about officials’ collusion to promote Soviet athletes were also raised in other track and field events at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, when it was alleged that Soviet officials at the end of the stadium would open the huge gates to create a wind tunnel propelling Soviet athlete javelin throws.
Ian Campbell’s jump has been the subject of intense examination by the Victoria University who conducted a biometrics analysis of his ‘step’ stage of the attempt and concluded that Campbell did not drag his foot which resulted in the ‘red flag’ being raised. In 2015, Athletics Australia, led by then President, David Grace QC, requested that World Athletics call on the IOC to recognise Campbell’s jump as having been legitimate, and reverse the field of play decision.
It is unlikely that an organising committee at a major championship could ever again conduct an event without independent international officials and the accompanying rigour of technical competition rules. That is of little consolation to Ian Campbell who has said ‘in terms of my athletic life, it was a catastrophe’.
Appeals against field of play decisions at the Tokyo Olympic Games
Although difficult to overturn a field of play decision, the facts in the Ian Campbell triple jump from 1980 would have lent themselves to the field of play decision being overturned by CAS if it were to occur today.
The first step in a field of play appeal to the CAS during the Olympic Games is for CAS to determine whether they have the jurisdiction to hear the appeal. If the governing rules and regulations of a particular sport does not allow for review of an official’s field of play decision, then irrespective of clear arbitrariness or even corruption, there is no right to appeal.
The World Athletics Competition and Technical Rules allow for an appeal to be made to a jury of appeal based on an official’s field of play decision within 30 minutes after the announcement of the result. World Athletics Competition and Technical Rules require appointment of referees, and where appropriate, video referees, with the referee having the power to overrule the decision of an on-field official. An appeal made to the World Athletics jury of appeal in relation to a field of play decision is final, and may not be appealed to the CAS, except in relation to disputes in connection with the Olympic Games, noting Rule 61(2) of the Olympic Charter provides that:
Any dispute arising on the occasion of, or in connection with, the Olympic Games shall be submitted exclusively to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in accordance with the Code of Sports-Related Arbitration.
Furthermore, the entry form signed by participants at the Olympic Games confirms the jurisdiction of the ad hoc division of the CAS to hear decisions during Olympic Games.
The CAS has established the relevant arbitration rules for the Tokyo Olympic Games which allow for the interests of the athletes and of sport to be resolved if they arise during the Olympic Games under Rule 61 of the Olympic Charter. This permits the establishment and operation of an ad hoc division of the CAS to hear decisions during an Olympic Game, which may in cases of extreme urgency, allow the CAS panel to award preliminary relief. Decisions of the CAS panel are made pursuant to the Arbitration Rules applicable to the CAS ad hoc division for the Olympic Games, which includes the Olympic Charter, applicable regulations and general principles, and rules of law. The ad hoc division of the CAS panel decisions during the Olympic Games are generally made within 24 hours.
Accordingly, any appeal against a field of play decision of an official, would first be considered by the relevant sport governing body, but could be appealed to the CAS ad hoc division for the Olympic Games. If indeed the Soviet triple jump official was instructed to raise the red flag belatedly after Ian Campbell’s triple jump at the 1980 Olympic Games, this would almost certainly have satisfied the test of arbitrariness or corruption.
Ian Campbell knows he is the rightful Olympic triple jump gold medallist from 1980. If the CAS existed in 1980, it is likely he would have the medal to go with the memory.
Sports tribunal in Australia
Australia has recently established a National Sports Tribunal [pursuant to the National Sports Tribunal Act 2019 (Cth)], which can hear a range of sporting disputes including appeals in anti-doping cases, selection or eligibility disputes, and disciplinary matters. The National Sports Tribunal does not however hear contract disputes or appeals relating to field of play disputes.
We often hear that the umpire’s decision is final. While that is generally true, there are often exceptions to every rule.
This memo presents an overview and commentary of the subject matter. It is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship and no duty of care is assumed or accepted. It does not constitute legal advice.
© Moulis Legal 2021
 CAS 2015/a/4208
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 CAS 2004/a/704
 CAS 02/007
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 CAS 2015/A/4208
 Rule 146 World Athletics Competition and Technical Rules