In a majority decision, a panel of judges from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has turned away a bid by several Paralympic athletes to secure funding that is equal to what able-bodied Olympians receive from the United States Olympic Committee.
Specifically, the court declined to modify Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a national law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability, “absent statutory or regulatory authority to import, wholesale, Title IX regulations and precedent into § 504.” Rather, the plaintiffs “should seek a remedy with the legislative or executive branches, not the courts.”
The court began its analysis with a review of the USOC and the law that supports it. The USOC has exclusive jurisdiction over U.S. participation in three athletic competitions: the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games, and the Pan American Games. 36 U.S.C. §§
220502, 220503(3)(A). Under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act
(ASA) as amended, id. §§ 220501–220529, Congress has charged the USOC to
“obtain for the United States, . . . the most competent amateur representation
possible in each event of the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games, and the
Pan-American Games.” Id. § 220503(4).
“To achieve its mission under the ASA,” wrote the court, “the USOC provides Athlete Support Programs which include various types of grants, tuition assistance, and health insurance benefits. The criterion that the USOC uses to distribute the benefits under its Resource Allocation Policy is that the applicant must be an athlete who is “eligible to represent the United States and who intend[s] to compete, if selected, in the next Olympic or Pan American Games.” Id. at 110.
The plaintiffs, who are all elite paralympic athletes that have competed in at least one Paralympic Games, challenged the USOC’s policy of providing Athlete Support
Programs only to Olympic team members, to the exclusion of Paralympic team
The foundation for their argument was that:
• Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and its provision that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . ” was applicable.
• The ASA was amended in 1998 to give the USOC jurisdiction and responsibility over United States participation in the Paralympic Games in addition to the Olympic and Pan American Games.
“However,” wrote the court, “the ASA as amended does not direct the USOC’s
activities in any detail with respect to Olympic or Paralympic athletes other than
requiring it to ‘obtain . . . the most competent amateur representation possible in
each event’ of the three competitions. 36 U.S.C. § 220503(4). The mere use of
the term ‘amateur athlete’ in the statute does not enlarge the relevant universe to
include all athletes under the USOC’s purview.”
The court went on to undercut the plaintiffs’ case law that the USOC’s three programs should be considered as “a whole.”
Scot Hollonbeck et al. v. United States Olympic Committee, 10th Cir.; No. 07-1053 and 07-1056; 1/16/08
Attorneys of Record; (for plaintiffs) Amy Robertson of Fox & Robertson, P.C., Denver, Colorado (and Timothy P. Fox of Fox & Robertson, P.C., Denver, Colorado; Kevin W. Williams, Legal Program Director of Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, Denver, Colorado, with her on the briefs). (for defendants) Christopher Handman of Hogan & Hartson, L.L.P., Washington, D.C. (Jeffrey S. George, John W. Cook, and Anne H. Turner of Hogan & Hartson, L.L.P., Colorado Springs, Colorado, with him on the brief).