Special Olympics snowshoer Nick Hilton disqualified after winning bronze

RAMSAU, Austria -- Three U.S. snowshoers had apparent medal-winning performances nullified because of a rule violation Tuesday at the Special Olympics World Winter Games. Their only consolation? They were in good company as a whopping 51 of 248 athletes were disqualified for violating the same maximum-effort rule.

The rule, which is in place to ensure that the finals pit athletes of equal or near-equal ability, is enforced when an athlete's performance is 15 percent faster (or more) than in the preliminary divisioning races.

Americans Erik Lemieux and Chris Lussier both would have won gold medals and Nick Hilton would have won bronze in their respective divisions in the 200M.

"We want to make sure athletes compete with athletes at the same ability level to make sure it's a fair competition," said Special Olympics International director of sport and development Christian Guiralt. "It's very, very important to understand that 15 percent improvement in one day for an athlete is too much. You would need too much training to do that."

Scrutiny of the rule is certain to follow after so many athletes were disqualified Tuesday, one possibility being that the degree of improvement increases to 18 or 20 percent. One theory raised for the drastic changes in times was a change in weather conditions from preliminaries to finals. But U.S. coach Maggie Rutenbeck said she is not ready to criticize.

"It's hard for me to comment in a negative way because I have such great respect for the technical delegates who are running the event," she said. "They went back and looked at conditions: They looked at weather, at cloud conditions, snow conditions from the day of prelims compared to today, and it really wasn't significantly different.

"Until there's some discussion about the rule itself, I'm not submitting a protest on our three, even though I actually feel each one ran the race of their lives today -- and it wasn't some sandbagging issue."

Guiralt says coaches such as Rutenbeck can circumvent the rule if an athlete has a subpar performance in a preliminary competition.

"What a coach has to do in that specific case, if he understands the athlete didn't get a very accurate time in the preliminaries, is go straight to the official and say that his athlete has to be put in a higher division," Guiralt said.

"They didn't protest because in the end it's a very, very clear rule for anyone. ... In the end, it's basically very fair."

Rutenbeck pointed out that while three of her athletes were penalized by the rule, three others benefited. One American snowshoer moved up from fourth place to a bronze medal and two others from silver to gold.

Hilton still has another chance to medal, with one individual event remaining, while Hilton, Lemieux and Chris Lussier all have a relay.