17-year-old Slovak artistic swimmer Viktória Reichová has won her case against the Slovak Swimming Federation (SSF) through the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) decision on August 22, 2019, in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Reichová, one of Slovakia’s up-and-coming talents, had been suspended from the national team shortly after the 2017 COMEN Cup, and was afterwards found guilty of a “disciplinary offense” by the disciplinary commission of the Slovak Federation. She had since been trying to resolve her case and be reinstated to try out for the national team, but she and her legal representatives were at a dead end with the SSF before filing with the CAS.
The CAS ruled in her favor, stating that there were several procedural irregularities during the course of the disciplinary actions taken against her, that her suspension from the national team was unjustified, excessive and unreasonable, that the disciplinary actions and the delay to start the proceedings were as a whole too long, and that she did not violate any rules or statutes within the Slovak federation.
“I’m so happy of course that we win,” Reichová said. “We came to Lausanne because it was probably our last chance to change something. This situation I was in for two years, it was really horrible. I was really cancelled from almost every competition, and I was just training for nothing. But I’m still here, and I’m fighting for some changes in my life for everything to be better.”
This dispute between Reichová and the SSF started back in the summer of 2017, specifically between July 3 and August 7, when she was on the 13-15 national team and preparing to compete at the Mediterranean (COMEN) Cup in the solo and team events.
Reichová had created her solo choreography throughout the season with her own club coach Livia Allarova. Despite discussions between them and members of the SSF, the latter refused to allow them to continue this work together ahead of the meet, as Reichová was now preparing and training as a member of the national team.
Reichová and Allarova however wanted to make some changes to the routine to increase its difficulty, and thus asked for external help from a Greek coach to modify the choreography. Moreover, Reichová added extra training hours to work on her own time on the modified solo.
At the COMEN Cup, she eventually finished 11th in the preliminary round, with a combined score of 146.2000 in the solo event, but could not qualify to finals due to the specific competition’s rules that only allow four non-COMEN countries to move on to finals. She was also the highest finisher for Slovakia in the figures competition by placing 28th out of 256 swimmers.
Only a few days later on August 9, 2017, she was summarily suspended from the national team on the grounds of breach of the Statute of the National Sports Team Member. At the same time, her case was to be referred to the federation’s disciplinary commission, but the actual proceedings did not start until October 23, 2017.
On July 16, 2018, nearly one year after Reichová’s last competition, the SSF Disciplinary Commission came to the conclusion that she had seriously interfered with the national team’s preparation of the COMEN Cup, and was thus subject to the disciplinary measure of reprimand.
Indeed, the SSF declared that she “committed a disciplinary offense on infringement of obligations arising from regulations of the SSF body” because she “started to train and practice, to a great extent, the amended solo free routine,” “called up a foreign personal trainer at the time of the national team training,” and finally had “undergone an excessively challenging and demanding training which did not comply with” the training regimen set by the national staff.
“I was 15 at that time,” she said. “Yes, I practiced more, and apparently it’s my fault (laughs). So, they said I will go to disciplinary commission. And this was really funny because it wasn’t my problem that I practiced more. Livia came with this idea, and I am just the athlete. But I respect Livia’s opinion and I liked this opinion too, so we decided to make this change. Of course I was happy that my routine was changed because I had about two points higher than I had in the last competition, but I wasn’t responsible for it.”
Reichová, her family, and Allarova tried to resolve the case with the federation and contested the decision to the Appeal Committee of the SSF, but to no avail. After months of waiting and the inability of both parties to solve it internally, Reichová and her family decided to take it all the way up to the highest sport’s court in the world, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, with the full support of the Slovak Olympic Committee (SOŠV) and a children’s ombudsman. They filed a statement of appeal on November 6, 2018.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is an institution independent of any sports organization with the task of resolving legal disputes in the field of sport through arbitration. It does this by pronouncing arbitral awards that have the same enforceability as judgements of ordinary courts. From 2009 – 2017, only 16.1 to 31.8 percent of the cases it received have been upheld.
In their submission to the CAS, Reichová and her legal representatives’ main request was for the court to cancel the decision of the disciplinary commission and to rule that she did not commit a disciplinary wrong. They argued that the CAS had jurisdiction over this case, that she did not get her rights to a fair disciplinary process, that the SSF made an erroneous determination of the law as she was only 15 years old at the time and just followed the decisions of the adults she depended on and trusted, and that she had been the target of discriminatory and bullying actions from responsible sports institutions from the local clubs up to the SSF during the previous two years.
In September 2019 and more than nine months after the filing, the Sole Arbitrator in charge of the case came to the conclusion that she indeed did not commit a disciplinary wrong. He acknowledged that a number of procedural irregularities occurred over the course of her disciplinary proceedings, and agreed that the entire process, the duration and nature of the suspension imposed upon her were excessive considering the reasons.
The report states: “In a situation where an athlete, particularly an athlete aged 15 years, is suspended summarily, it would be anticipated that disciplinary proceedings would commence immediately, if not at the same time. […] Moreover, the effect of this suspension was serious, particularly for a young athlete, who all agree is dedicated to her sport, and to achieving success for her country. It amounted in practice to a severe punishment, much more serious than the sanction of reprimand or censure, later decided, and upheld in her appeal. Awaiting the disciplinary process, which finally commenced two and a half months later, and then awaiting the outcome of the disciplinary process, [Reichová] did not have any opportunity to challenge or appeal the suspension, which continued for over six months.”
The Sole Arbitrator also found the SSF guilty of unreasonable delay to start the disciplinary hearing, despite Reichová and her representatives’ efforts to bring the process to a conclusion. He stated that it was “incumbent on such organization to proceed with reasonable expedition” when it decides to suspend an athlete before initiating disciplinary proceedings.
Finally, the Sole Arbitrator found that although it is uncontested that Reichová did train more than what was planned by the national team staff during the summer of 2017, this fact “does not constitute more than a technical mistake.”
He however also recognized his review of the present matter was only limited to the facts that formed the basis of the disciplinary action, and was thus not entitled to decide upon the alleged discriminatory and bullying actions of the SSF against Reichová, which were not the object of the original disciplinary proceedings.
As a result, the CAS cancelled the SSF Disciplinary Commission’s decision, on the basis that at the time of the allegations, she was only 15 years old and naturally simply acted under the supervision of her coach and her legal representatives.
“Oh my God, of course we are very happy,” Allarova said. “We were just fighting for the truth. So finally, what we declared all the time, what we said, it was true and it came out. We didn’t want to do wrong personally to anybody; we only wanted to declare the truth that Viki did not do anything wrong. It was our message, what we wanted to prove.”
Throughout this ordeal, Reichová continued to train alongside her duet partner Natalia Pivarčiová, who also found herself essentially in the same boat as Reichová and out of the national team. Reichová recognized it was particularly tough at times to find the will to continue swimming in the middle of this legal battle: “After a time, you really lose your motivation because you work a lot and it’s hard. And everything for nothing. Because after all year of hard work, for some reason you are not going to any competition, and you can’t represent your country.”
They did manage to compete in smaller international competitions for their clubs in 2018 and 2019, like at the Hungarian Open, the Austrian Youth Championships, the Czech Nationals Open, or even the Cancun Open in Mexico.
This past year, Reichová reached a season-high score of 76.1333 in free solo at the Cancun Open in the senior category, while she and Pivarčiová obtained a career-best 77.2667 in free duet at the Austrian Open. Both of these scores would normally make them contenders for a national team spot.
“When I was four years old, I had one target and I’m still here, trying to do my best,” Reichová said. “I don’t want to stop because someone said that I should stop. If I don’t want to stop with synchronized swimming, why would I? It’s my decision when I will stop, even if I’m swimming in a really hard situation. I still love this sport.”
Following the announcement of the CAS’ decision, Ivan Šulek, the newly-elected president of the federation, apologized to Reichová in a public statement to the Slovak media. He admitted he was angered this case was mishandled by the artistic swimming staff and that it could not be solved easily and internally. This was the first dispute in Slovakia between an athlete and a national federation that could not be settled at home.
Inside Synchro has reached out to the SSF, but it did not immediately respond to a request for comment. At the time of this writing, Reichová and Pivarčiová have both been reinstated, but nothing else has changed within the federation itself.
In the end, Reichová was not only fighting for herself, but she also wanted to set a precedent and to render federations more transparent, fair, and accountable in their selection procedures and decision-making when they determine the fate of an athlete.
“I know other girls have the same problems in other countries,” she said. “I think it’s really everywhere, but they just don’t talk about it. Sometimes we have to talk about it, and I did. All I want is some rules which will be really respected from all sides, and who is the best goes to the competition. If it will not be me, then I will train more. Of course I’ll be sad, but it will be fair. These three years, I couldn’t even try to go to these competitions. So, I just want rules to be respected and the sport to be somehow fair.”
The full cost of the arbitration proceedings will be borne by the SSF, which are estimated to be between 30,000 to 80,000 euros. The SSF shall also pay Reichová an amount of CHF 3,000 as contribution towards the expenses incurred in connection with these proceedings.
The full CAS report on the arbitration between Viktoria Reichová and the Slovak Swimming Federation is available here.