Proceedings in the court and a tragic bereavement overshadowed the action taking place at the Vancouver games, writes Richard Chambers
The Irish women’s bobsleigh team were last week cleared to enter the Winter Olympics despite an appeal lodged by the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) as well as a further challenge by Brazil. The two-women team, compromising of Claire Bergin and pilot Aoife Hoey, will now participate in an expanded event at the Whistler Sliding Centre.
The initial dispute centred on Ireland’s qualification as the twentieth entrant ahead of Australia. The AOC contended that as the only representative of Oceania at the Vancouver Games, under the guidelines of the FIBT (the sport’s international governing body) they were entitled to be part of the women’s bobsleigh event. This argument was deemed justified by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who approved of a 21-team competition including both the Irish and Australian crews.
This was not to be the end of the legal wrangling. Following the success of the AOC’s appeal, Brazilian Ice Sports Federation launched a petition, believing that Ireland’s participation at the women’s bobsleigh was invalid owing to Ireland’s late replacement of France in qualification. In a decision released ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony the CAS rejected the plea of the Brazilians, allowing the event to commence as planned. The decision was praised by OCI Chief Executive Stephen Martin, adding that it had been a “difficult week, but now we can look forward to the Games commencing.”
For Hoey there was an added reason to be cheerful, as the Portarlington native was selected as the flag bearer for Friday’s spectacular opening ceremony. The 26-year old-was overjoyed with the honour. “It’s been a rough few days out here in Vancouver with all the legal action swirling around the bobsleigh team,” she said, “but this move has lifted our spirits in a big way.”
The opening ceremony of the Vancouver games itself was overshadowed by the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. Despite the death of the 21-year-old, the ceremony carried on with the full participation of the Georgian contingent, who were greeted with an emotional standing ovation at the BC Place Stadium. The 2,500 athletes representing 82 nations at the Winter Olympics, as well as the thousands in attendance, united in a minute’s silence for Kumaritashvili.
The passing of the Georgian is the latest in a line of controversies surrounding the Vancouver Games. These incidents have included anti-globalisation demonstrations, arguments over practice times allotted to Canadian athletes, as well as the women’s bobsleigh quagmire.
The attention garnered is seen as a positive by Stephen Martin, a man who believes that all publicity is good publicity. “The profile of winter sports has certainly been to the fore over the last week or so”, he told the press at the CAS hearing, “and that has to be a good thing.” The Irish women’s crew is the first of its kind to participate at an Olympics. As the final team to qualify for the Games, Ireland may not be favoured to win medals, but the fact that they are in Vancouver at all is a fine achievement.