Brittney Griner Story Raises Additional Legal Concerns for the International Sporting Community

The Winter Olympics in Milan, Italy will start on February 6, 2026. The international sporting federations have until September 2023 to submit their official Winter Olympic 2026 qualification systems and events to the International Olympic Committee. Olympic-hopeful athletes must compete in predetermined qualifying sporting events to be eligible for consideration as accredited Olympic athletes.

These athletes normally prepare and train for the Olympic qualifiers by participating in non-qualifying international sporting events or playing for international teams during the off-season. These international experiences allow athletes to sharpen their athletic abilities while learning the “competition’s” sports ideology and abilities. While the non-qualifying events are primarily used to help the athletes train, these events are also used by the sporting federations to work out any complications that may arise from multiple nations and athletes converging into one geographic area that has its own distinct culture and laws. Each participant is expected to uphold the laws and values of their home country while respecting the values and laws of the host nation.

WNBA star, Brittney Griner, is a two-time Olympian who won gold medals for women’s
basketball in 2016 and 2020. When Griner wasn’t playing for the NBA’s Phoenix Mercury team, she spent her off-season time playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian Premier League women’s basketball team. When Griner was detained and incarcerated in Russia for violating a host country law, which in America wouldn’t have resulted in much more than a fine, the NBA, sporting associations, and fellow athletes were stunned. This athlete was at the mercy of the host nation without any real recourse to be returned to her home nation. It took multiple legal actions and over 9 months of diplomatic negotiations to secure her release back to her home country.

Prior to Griner’s 294-day confinement, many professional coaches encouraged this type of international athletic cross-competition. After Griner’s release, the global sporting world breathed a collective sigh of relief. However, international sporting federations and governing organizations should review current participation policies to ensure there are legal protections in place that allow for the timely return of athletes from the host country to their home country if a detainable violation were to occur. With International sporting events happening more frequently over the next 3 years, in preparation for the Olympic qualifiers, the potential for international athletes to find themselves involved in host country legal troubles increases.

Currently, Lake Placid, New York is hosting the 2023 FISU World University Games from January 12-22, 2023. This is the second time Lake Placid has been selected to host the FISU games; the first time was in 1972. This event brings 50 countries represented by 2,500 athletes from 600 universities across the globe to approximately a 5 mi 2 / 13 km 2 area. Lake Placid hosted the Winter Olympics twice as well, in 1932 and 1980. While the town may be accustomed to hosting international events, this could be the first time in the United States for many of the athletes. The FISU rule book mandates that host countries provide an attaché/interpreter to assist visiting athletes with local legal questions. Is this enough protection for visiting athletes who may find themselves in violation of US laws they don’t know about or understand?