Liam Morgan

After what feels like an eternity, Russia finally has its date in court in its protracted battle with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) confirmed this week that hearings in a case which could have far-reaching consequences for sport are set to take place from November 2 to 5, a couple of weeks before banned athletics coach Alberto Salazar’s appeal is due to be heard.

While the Russian case is unquestionably one of the highest-profile of the year for the CAS - joining the Manchester City versus UEFA financial ding-dong on the main event billing - it is one of hundreds the CAS expects to deal with in 2020.

CAS secretary general Matthieu Reeb estimates between 600 and 700 cases arrive at the desk of sport’s highest court each year - an average of around two per day.

The number is likely to be lower in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and not all will require the attention and resources of the Sun Yang case. But it nonetheless represents a considerable workload for a relatively small institution, albeit one which has a 400-strong list of arbitrators.

That volume is the product of the Lausanne-based body's status as sport’s supreme court. Practically any athlete, federation or sports organisation can take their grievance to the CAS, providing their rules and regulations allow for it.

Such is the extent of disputes which reach the CAS that the phrase "going to CAS" has become permanently engrained in the lexicon of the Olympic Movement and its meaning is almost universally understood by those of us who inhabit it.

The inner workings of the CAS system and how it functions are less well known, however.

The CAS is considered the supreme court for sport ©Getty Images
The CAS is considered the supreme court for sport ©Getty Images

The CAS, established under the direction of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1984, has three main divisions - ordinary, appeals and anti-doping, the newest member of the CAS family.

Cases at the ordinary division mainly deal with issues such as contract disputes, so much of the focus of the public, media and the general Olympic world centres on the latter two.

According to Reeb, of the 600-odd procedures at CAS each year, roughly 420 would be appeals related and the other 180 would be handled by the appeals division.

If an athlete wishes to contest a doping ban, for example, that would be dealt with by the appeals body. The anti-doping division (ADD), set up to handle such cases on behalf of International Federations, is the first instance of the process, and therefore makes the first decision, like the length of the ban or acquitting an athlete of wrongdoing.

Once the athlete or federation decides to go to CAS, a statement of appeal is prepared and they then have a second deadline to file the appeal brief, considered the main written submission.

The party which they are challenging have 21 days to file an answer, and if no second phase of written submission is required, the panel - which could include one or three arbitrators - is convened.

CAS secretary general Matthieu Reeb said the court deals with up to 700 cases a year ©Getty Images
CAS secretary general Matthieu Reeb said the court deals with up to 700 cases a year ©Getty Images

Arbitrators apply to be on the CAS list, refreshed and reviewed every four years by the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (ICAS) Membership Commission. If they have full legal training, experience in arbitration and an interest in sports law, they are likely to be accepted.

For the appeals division, each party selects one arbitrator from the CAS list, and the President of the division chooses the chair, unless those involved have a preference on who takes on the role.

The process is similar for the ordinary division, except the parties, rather than the President, choose the head of the panel. If they cannot agree, the division President makes the call.

Reeb said panels are typically established between three and four weeks after the claim is submitted.

The reasons why cases might be decided by one or three-person panels is largely financial, according to Reeb. It is cheaper to have only one, but three allows for a broader legal perspective.

Proceedings are free for what Reeb defines as "international disciplinary matters", such as the case involving Sun Yang, while parties contribute to the costs of the CAS in others, mainly financial disputes, like Manchester City’s showdown with UEFA.

Dates are then sourced for hearings, which Reeb conceded was one of the most frequent stumbling blocks and often why cases hit delays. Hearings can be held in public if either the athlete demands one or if all parties agree.

The case involving Sun Yang was among the highest-profile dealt with by the CAS in 2019 ©Getty Images
The case involving Sun Yang was among the highest-profile dealt with by the CAS in 2019 ©Getty Images

The CAS aims for the "award" - the decision - to be made three months from when the panel receives the file, a target the secretary general claimed is met around 40 per cent of the time.

The Swiss official is all too aware of criticism of the time it takes for CAS to render a verdict, but insists it is not always under the court’s control. "It is our role to push the process along," Reeb told insidethegames earlier this year.

CAS decisions can be appealed to the supreme Swiss Federal Tribunal, which only rules based on grounds such as a violation of the right to be heard, lack of jurisdiction or "public principle of law", including whether a sanction was proportionate, and not on the application of the law itself.

Sun, banned for eight years by the CAS after one of his entourage smashed his blood vial with a hammer in a row with drug testers in September 2018, plans to do just that, but Reeb suggested the three-time Olympic champion’s chances of success are slim.

"I understand he has nothing to lose if he goes to the Tribunal but the only element could be the sanction itself, and that the sanction is fixed by the WADA code," said Reeb, who revealed the Tribunal had upheld only 10 of 220 appeals of CAS decisions.

"This could be an argument raised by Sun, that the sanction is disproportionate as it is almost the end of his career.

"When it is a lack of proportionality, it is a general principle of law and this could be reviewed by the Tribunal.

"If the appeal is successful, the entire WADA Code would have to be reviewed because it is not only about Sun Yang, it is about the sanction itself."

As well as denunciation for being all-powerful and rarely answering to anyone but itself, the CAS has also faced criticism over its perceived lack of independence.

The ICAS is headed by senior IOC member John Coates ©Getty Images
The ICAS is headed by senior IOC member John Coates ©Getty Images

Concerns over the influence of the IOC in the CAS - which gets around two-thirds of its income from the Olympic Movement - have been prominent ever since it was formed 36 years ago.

The ICAS, the governing body for the CAS and which appoints the President of the three divisions, is headed by senior IOC member John Coates, while several members of the ICAS’ ruling Council are still actively involved with Federations and sports bodies.

Reeb stressed the ICAS and Coates are "responsible for the management and funding of the court, and do not play any role in the procedures themselves".

The CAS secretary general said the role of the Australian, a close ally of IOC President Thomas Bach, was more managerial and his position "gives some confidence to the contributors that there is someone who knows the Olympic Movement in the role".

Eyebrows will still be raised at that explanation, but Reeb insisted doubting the independence of the CAS was unfair.

"I understand the public and the media asking the question but for us, this is no longer an issue," Reeb said.

"It was a question which was fair to ask in the 80s and the 90s, when the IOC played an important role in the activities of CAS - they could amend the rules, they could select arbitrators on the general list - but step by step the CAS has gained its independence practically and structurally.

"We had the test before the Swiss Federal Tribunal, we passed it, we had the test before the German court [with the Claudia Pechstein case] and we passed it, and we also passed the test before the European Court of Human Rights.

"You could see a connection between the IOC and CAS but the system works well."