Ruling takes wind out of Hall's sails

The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis windsurfer Farrah Hall and her Olympic dream might be nearing a third and final strike.

A race jury denied her appeal yesterday, reaffirming its initial ruling that sends Florida windsurfer Nancy Rios to the Summer Games in China and leaves Hall at home.

"I am disillusioned and bitterly disappointed with the committee's actions," Hall said in a statement released yesterday afternoon.

Hall's protest over the results from the Olympic trials and an earlier jury decision was considered over two days and in separate hearings last week in Providence, R.I.

With the announcement yesterday, Hall is expected to exhaust what might be her remaining options: the U.S. Olympic Committee review board and a date next month with a California arbitrator.

At stake is the sole spot on the Olympic team. In question are the results from the RS:X team selection regatta, held in October in Long Beach, Calif. In the decisive 16th race, Hall crossed the finish-line first and initially thought she'd won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But Rios, the fourth finisher, quickly filed a protest, saying an inadvertent crash tore her sail and adversely affected her finish. A jury granted Rios the win.

That same three-person jury - bolstered by two other members - reopened the case last week and held a nine-hour hearing in which witness testimony and more than 400 photographs were considered. The photos, intended to prove that a tear in the sail was not harmful, were "not convincing," the jury said, and Rios' claim was upheld.

Charley Cook, an attorney for the U.S. Sailing Association, the sport's national governing body, said about 15 of the photos were pertinent and they showed a visible tear on the sail. The tear measured 4 to 5 inches in length but grew to 9 to 10 inches during the race, according to documents released by U.S. Sailing.

At the jury's request, Rios took her torn sail back on the water in Florida last month for more photographs and observation. Hall's camp retained Morten Christoffersen, an Olympic windsurfer, as an expert observer. He told the jury last week that in the Florida demonstration - which featured different wind conditions than the trials - the tear made no noticeable difference.

"When the jury made their decision, they basically totally disregarded what I tried to tell them," Christoffersen said in an interview yesterday.

Hall immediately filed for redress of her own, saying her results were made worse by "improper acts or omission" by both the jury members and by U.S. Sailing.

A second hearing with the same jury was held the next day, this one lasting 13 hours. Jurors were called as witnesses to discuss their roles and observations, and those same members eventually confirmed their initial ruling.

"As my lawyers have noted, people fighting unfair parking tickets receive more legal protection than I have as the winner on the water of the Olympic Trials," said Hall, 26.

In a statement yesterday, U.S. Sailing president Jim Capron defended the process and praised the jurors. "The jury took the challenge with all the skill, empathy and diligence that could ever be expected of any volunteer or the highest levels of sports," Capron said.

With the Olympics less than four months away, she doesn't have much time or many options left. She will try to convince the USOC review board that U.S. Sailing's rules fail to meet due process standards guaranteed by the Olympic committee and federal law. Separately, an arbitration hearing is scheduled for May 21-23 in San Francisco.

Cook, who was an international judge at the 2004 Games, characterized Hall's continued fight as a "scorched-earth approach."

"The sad thing is this aggressive litigation is detracting from time either of these athletes could be training for the Olympics," he said.

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