Speed skating’s tough rules carved up by EU court

Jorrit Bergsma (C) of the Netherlands crosses the finish line in first place in Salt Lake City, 16 February 2020. [Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGE FREY]

Eligibility rules imposed by the governing body of professional ice skating are not in keeping with the EU’s competition codex because they unfairly penalise competitors, the EU’s top court ruled on Wednesday (16 December).

The International Skating Union (ISU) is the only authority recognised by the International Olympic Committee and has the power to pre-authorise which events its members can compete in. Breaches to its statutes are subject to hefty fines. 

In 2014, an unaffiliated company tried to organise a new speed skating competition in Dubai but was unable to do so because it could not guarantee the participation of top athletes, due to the ISU’s rules.

That prompted two Dutch speed skaters to file a complaint with the European Commission in 2017, which duly ordered the ISU to amend its rules or face fines. The ice skating federation then took the EU executive’s decision to the European Court of Justice.

In a ruling published today, the ECJ confirmed that the Commission was right to sanction the ISU and that its penalty system is “disproportionate” and “ill-defined”. 

“Such severity may dissuade athletes from taking part in competitions not authorised by the ISU, including where there is no legitimate reason for such a refusal to grant authorisation,” the ruling notes.

The federation’s commanding position, it adds, could lead to instances of conflict of interest, as it could prevent potential organisers from setting up their own events, which are a lucrative source of income.

“The ISU is required to ensure, when examining applications for authorisation, that third-party organisers of speed skating competitions are not unduly deprived of access to the relevant market,” the ruling says.

However, while the judges agreed that the Commission had made the right decision, the ruling disputed the EU executive’s threat to impose periodic penalty payments, partially agreeing with the ISU that it was not justified.

This case is the first instance of the European Court of Justice ruling on whether rules adopted by a sports federation breach EU competition law.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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