The Case Against the Dominican Republic and Why Sports Federations have Independent Tribunals

Overwhelming evidence point to the Domincan Republic Handball Federation repeatedly using overage and non-Dominican athletes on their national teams.  Will the PATHF's Executive Committee's maneuvers to disregard the Tribunal they established just 2 years ago succeed?

Overwhelming evidence points to the Dominican Republic Handball Federation repeatedly using overage and non-Dominican athletes on their national teams. Will the PATHF’s Executive Committee’s maneuvers to disregard the findings of the independent Tribunal they established just 2 years ago succeed?

Team Handball News contributor, Christer Ahl has resigned from his position as the Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) President of the Commission and Tribunal for Discipline and Ethics.  Here’s some background on the Dominican Republic’s numerous violations for over age players and how the PATHF’s Executive Committee is maneuvering to disregards the tribunal’s findings.

In the women’s youth world championship in 2010 (for players 18 or younger), which was organized in the Dominican Republic, the home team stunned the handball world by just barely losing against the eventual silver medalists Norway and then coming very close also against the bronze medal winner from the Netherlands in the quarterfinal.  It was the clearly best performance from any of the Pan American teams.  But already during the tournament, there were some suspicions that something might be amiss.   Pan American observers seemed to recognize some of the players from previous years, and some of them seemed rather old.  The same team had months earlier done unusually well in the Pan American Championship.  And it later on turned out to be a time bomb.

In September 2012, at the Congress of the Pan American Handball Federation (PATHF), Christer Ahl, well-known to our readers, was present as a U.S. delegate, in support of then USA Team Handball President Jeff Utz.  Christer was asked by the Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) to draw on his vast experience and take on the task of preparing the first ever PATHF Regulations for Disciplinary and Ethics Matters.  And, for good measure, he was also asked to serve as the first President of the Commission and Tribunal for Discipline and Ethics.

Christer has told me that he did not really expect to very busy once the Regulations had been finished, because in the history of the PATHF, there had never been any problems of a magnitude such that a Tribunal was needed.  But, Christer was prepared to support what he felt was a good initiative, because, as a fundamental principle, it makes good sense to separate serious disciplinary and ethics matters from political bodies, such as the Executive Committee and the Congress, leaving them for a totally independent and neutral body such as a Tribunal.

But after only one year, in late October 2013, ‘all hell broke loose’, when the Uruguay federation filed a complaint accusing the Dominican Federation of age fraud involving two specific players.  The focus was on their participation in the 2010 Pan American Championship, and not in the World Championship, which is outside the jurisdiction of PATHF.  There is no time limit for reviewing and punishing such a serious infraction, and the reason why the complaint was filed in 2013 was that these two players were now playing for Spanish clubs, traveling abroad on their own and outside the control of the Dominican Federation.  So the Uruguayans felt that there was some hope that evidence of the age fraud could now be found.  The crux is, of course, that passports have to be presented at Pan American and World Championships and that there was no real no basis for questioning the authenticity of a passport at such time.

I will not repeat too much here of what Christer and his Tribunal colleagues discovered, because you can instead read it more fully in an article on the blog Mundohandball:  Link. But through registrations in Spain, they found evidence of passports which showed that the two players would have been 23 and 20 years old, instead of 18, back in 2010.  It was also found that both players had been on the (senior) national team already in 2007, at which time their stated ages matched the ones they were now showing in Spain.  The Dominican Federation still denied all knowledge and suggested that any wrongdoing must have been the responsibility of the players.  This caused one of the players to explode and make a full confession, moreover explaining all the methods used by the federation.  Essentially, they collected birth certificates, national ID cards and passports for all national team players.  And, when this particular player went to the 2010 Pan American qualifier, she was simply given, and ordered to use, a false passport with a date of birth that made her five years younger and thus eligible to participate.

On this basis, the Tribunal concluded that the Dominican Federation had been engaged in systematic fraud, that the entire Federation management and many players were fully aware, and that the Federation President who had kept submitting false passports was the primarily guilty person.  It was noted that the two players had of course participated knowingly in the fraud, although perhaps under pressure, and that they were not the instigators.  In a case where the mentality of the entire Federation allows this kind of serious and systemic fraud to take place, the normal approach in international sports is to punish the entire community by suspending all teams from the federation.  This is also done in recognition of the reality that the fraud has hurt other teams from other countries, who have used their meager resources to compete, without suspecting that one of the opponents is cheating in a major way.  And, of course, this also serves as a deterrence to tamp down the temptation of future wrongdoing.

The punishments were announced last April, and there had already been interim suspensions in place since January.  The President was suspended for ten years, and the players for five and three years each, with the lesser punishment for the player who collaborated.  All Dominican teams were then suspended for three years.  The PATHF Regulations would allow for an appeal to the International Court for Sports (CAS), but no such appeal seemed to be forthcoming, although there were rumors of concern in the Dominican Republic.

Instead, there was suddenly a public confession, which was given a worldwide distribution through YouTube, by another player, a Cuban national, who had for many years been playing on the Dominican national team in various Pan American and World Championships despite never having had a Dominican citizenship.  Moreover, she stated that many other players had been involved either in the type of age fraud which had just been punished in two cases, or in the type of fraud that she had committed, namely being on Dominican national teams despite being citizens of other countries.   This suggested that the overall scope of the fraud was actually much wider than what had been reviewed by the Tribunal, and it led to expectations that PATHF would order an additional review.

Much to the amazement of the Tribunal, however, the PATHF Executive instead started conveying to the Tribunal that they were having problems with the team suspension, presumably after listening to complaints from the Dominican sports authorities.  They wanted the Tribunal to reconsider, something which the Tribunal noted is simply not permitted.  Instead the Tribunal pointed to the existing appeals possibility to CAS.  But apparently this was not a popular approach, as that would have allowed CAS to take into account all the new confessions and evidence, something which could have led to an increase in punishments.   So this has caused the PATHF Executive to come up with the outrageous proposal, despite the strong objections from the Tribunal, that the PATHF Congress, which is meeting this week, should be asked to review and overturn the Tribunal decision.

As Christer has noted, this is not a matter of the Tribunal thinking that it is ‘infallible’ in its judgment.  Any Tribunal welcomes, and feels protected, by the existence of an appeals process.  But, as noted earlier, the fundamental reason why a Tribunal exists is that it is intended to remove the decisions from the Executive or the Congress, which are always apt to act under political influences, taking personal or business considerations into account.   So every Federation which has instituted a Tribunal must then refrain from getting back into these matters, influencing the process or overturning decisions.  As Christer notes more in detail in an interview at Mundohandball (in Spanish)  it seems clear that the PATHF has completely failed to understand or respect the principles of a Tribunal.

The PATHF Congress will be addressing this matter in the next few days.  At which time the Congress could take one of two actions.  They could decide to respect the independence of the Tribunal and its findings.  This doesn’t mean that the Dominican Federation couldn’t appeal the finding; only that they will have to appeal it through the also, independent International Court for Sport Arbitration (CAS).

Or, the PATHF Congress can over turn the Tribunal’s findings, essentially make the Tribunal’s work and its careful review of the very convincing evidence meaningless.  Here’s hoping that the Congress Delegates will show sound judgment.