Jevon Balfour, left, in practice before the pandemic. BERNIE PUCHALSKI

Jevon Balfour seeks reinstatement of Olympic spot

Jevon Balfour thought he had taken the second-to-last step in his quest to represent Canada at the Tokyo Olympics when he defeated Burnaby Mountain Wrestling Club’s Jasmit Phulka of 11-0 and 6-5 in a wrestle-off on Feb. 8, 2020, at the University of Calgary.

Balfour, who defeated Phulka while wearing protective goggles, had been given the wrestle-off because he was unable to compete at the December 2019 Olympic trials after undergoing eye surgery in September 2019 to fix a detached retina.

The 26-year-old Brock Wrestling Club member naturally assumed the victory had guaranteed him the right to represent Canada in the 74-kilogram division at the Pan Am Olympic Qualification Tournament, March 13-15, in Ottawa. A top two finish in Ottawa would punch Balfour’s ticket to Tokyo.

But a week before the qualifier, the 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medalist received an email from Wrestling Canada informing him that he was ineligible to wrestle any more and that his Sport Canada carding (funding) had been cancelled. Wrestling Canada based its decision on the fact that United World Wrestling, the international governing body for amateur wrestling, had ruled Balfour couldn’t wear goggles while wrestling and he was not able get medical clearance to compete.

“I was like, ‘What? How did all of this happen just like that?’We started fighting it, because how could they do it so suddenly?” Balfour said.

Balfour and the Brock Wrestling Club made a last-minute appeal to the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada to allow him to compete in the qualifier but it was denied.

The Brampton native refused to take no for an answer and he sought additional medical and legal advice.

“My vision is compromised but my eye is healthy. It is not as strong as the other one and [doctors] see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to wrestle and that I don’t need goggles,” he said.

His appeal to his national governing body met with some success.

“Wrestling Canada slowly gave back a bunch of stuff. They allowed me to compete within Canada and at the next nationals, they gave me back my funding, which is big, and the only thing we are fighting for now is the Olympic spot.”

Yet why he has to fight to represent Canada at the final Olympic qualifier in early May in Bulgaria has left Balfour scratching his head.

“It is the dumbest thing. It doesn’t make any sense and it never made any sense to me,” he said. “As soon as I got cleared to wrestle from Wrestling Canada, it is only right that I should get my spot back. I’ve never lost to this guy and I beat him at the wrestle-off. But they responded back that they are standing firm on that decision.”

To fight that decision, Balfour has enlisted the services of Zachary Rosen, a lawyer with Lenczner Slaght, a prominent Toronto law firm which has taken the case pro bono.

“The firm does work with athletes occasionally on these sort of matters,” Rosen said.

Rosen wasn’t involved with the initial appeal to Wrestling Canada but has come on board to try and get Wrestling Canada to give Balfour back his spot at the Olympic qualifier.

“There is an internal appeals process at Wrestling Canada as well as an appeals process subsequent to that, the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada,” he said. “Without getting into the technical legal bits and live issues, we’re considering all the options that are available to Jevon to get his ranking back, but we’re focused right now on challenging the decision that was made by Wrestling Canada not to restore Jevon’s ranking as the No. 1 ranked athlete in his weight class.”

In July, Balfour provided Wrestling Canada with evidence that he didn’t have the medical condition it said prevented him from competing without protective eyewear, which was being monocular.

“Medical evidence has established that he is not monocular and two ophthalmologists in sports medicine positions have made it clear that Jevon is at no greater risk than any other athlete for eye injury while competing and there’s no safety reason why he should be required to wear goggles when other athletes aren’t,” Rosen said. “Based on that evidence, Wrestling Canada did reconsider part of their previous decision.”

But the organization stuck with its decision not to accept Balfour’s victory at the wrestle-off.

“They made the decision not to consider those results in terms of his ranking on the basis that he had worn protective eyewear during that wrestle-off,” Rosen said. “Of course, he only wore protective eyewear because Wrestling Canada required him to do so. He wanted to comply with what Wrestling Canada asked him to do because his goal was to get that wrestle-off done.”

Wrestling Canada is now being asked to reconsider that decision and restore Balfour’s ranking.

“To put it very simply, this is a ranking that he has earned,” Rosen said. “It is not a question of giving him a new shot to beat this athlete or doing something that is inconsistent with the actual scoring that he achieved. He beat Mr. Phulka fair and square in the wrestle-off in two matches and pursuant to Wrestling Canada’s own rules he earned the spot as champion in his weight class. It is only because of Wrestling Canada’s own conduct that he is not currently the No. 1 ranked athlete.”

Balfour is confident Wrestling Canada will ultimately rule in his favour.

“Even though so many things that didn’t make sense have already happened, I am still kind of confident it is going to work out.”

Rosen isn’t making any assumptions about what Wrestling Canada is going to do.

“I hope that they will do the right thing. I will say that the process that they have followed so far has not been inspiring.”

One recent example has Rosen thinking that way.

“The medical evidence I mentioned to you earlier, we provided that in July and it took them until October to get back to Jevon and confirm that he would be able to return to training and competition. We didn’t get much of an explanation about the delay other than some oblique reference to looking into their own medical evidence, which we never saw.

“To me it seems like a very bureaucratic approach to what ultimately is an issue of fairness.”

Rosen knows the clock is ticking with the final qualifier set for early May.

“We are not going to waste any time,” he said. “We are challenging the decision they made and we will continue to push that forward as far as we can and as long as we can. The delay has not been Jevon’s fault.”

If Wrestling Canada denies the appeal, the next step will be once again to take it to the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada.

While the dispute works toward a resolution, Balfour has been training with Cornell University wrestlers in Ithaca, N.Y., since Jan. 10.

“I wanted to get some more training. They are pretty open, all their guys are training on the mats and they have some really good guys,” he said.

He has trained at Cornell in the past and is staying in a house that the university rents out to athletes.

He first returned to on-mat training back in December at Niagara Top Team martial arts centre in St. Catharines with other Brock Wrestling Club members who are on national teams.

“It was so cool but I could feel it at first,” Balfour said, with a laugh. “I wasn’t as mobile or fluid, I didn’t flow much and my cardio was shot.”

Cornell’s tough regimen has helped him get back on track and he’s confident he can qualify for the Olympics if given a chance.

“That’s why I am at Cornell. It’s to get the best training that I can against the best guys, including a guy (Kyle Dake) who has been to the worlds twice and never been scored on. They have another guy in the weight class below and he is really good as well.”

Balfour agrees the initial training break because of the pandemic was fine with him.

“I did enjoy COVID (training break), I am not going to lie,” he said. “At first I couldn’t really believe it was happening. At that point, you couldn’t go see anyone so I decided to go get a job. I found a job at a meat store (Richard’s Fine Meats and Deli) and worked there for a bit.”

Once the lockdown eased slightly, he took the opportunity to reconnect with his friends and family.

“With the busy season that we always have, you never get to see your friends and family as much. I was able to see friends and family a good amount so I was fortunate for that. I was really happy about that. That was big for me.”

He is glad to be back training and his motivation has never been stronger.

“It’s my love for the sport and my dream of going to the Olympics. I have been putting in so much hard for work for so long that I still want to do it.”

 

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