European Commission published its decision on the ISU case – And its possible effects on grassroots
The European Commission published its decision on the case regarding the International Skating Union (ISU) on the 8th of December. In its decision, it states: “International Skating Union rules imposing severe penalties on athletes participating in speed skating competitions that are not authorised by the ISU are in breach of EU antitrust law. The ISU must now change these rules.”
According to the Commission, these eligibility rules restrict competition, and “enable the ISU to pursue its own commercial interests to the detriment of athletes and organisers of competing events. In particular, the Commission considers that the ISU eligibility rules restrict the commercial freedom of athletes who are prevented from participating in independent skating events. Furthermore, the Commission is of the opinion that these rules prevent independent organisers from putting together their own speed skating competitions.”
Sporting rules set up by sports federations are subject to EU antitrust rules when the body setting the rules, or the companies and persons affected by the rules, are engaged in an economic activity. Two Dutch speed skaters Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt, made a complaint to the Commission on the international governing body of speed and figure skating, as they were not able to participate in an event in Dubai, which the ISU had not preauthorised because of possible integrity risks. According to the rules of the ISU, it can sanction the athletes if they participate in an event, which is not preauthorised by the ISU. The athletes found this restricting their commercial freedom.
How can it affect grassroots sport and the European Sports Model?
The ISU case can also have an impact on the organised sport, and to its grassroots level, and thus many international governing bodies of sport are following the case carefully. The case has its link to the commercialisation of sport, as well as to the power of international sport governing bodies to decide on the rules of their own sport. The international governing bodies have the right and responsibility to decide on the rules and regulations of its sport. With these rules and regulations, it is possible to have a common playing field for sport competitions in each sport. These rules also play an important role in athletes' careers - they protect their health and safety and the integrity of competitions. If this right is questioned in future and sport is seen as an economic activity, it might open the market more than so far. In the worst case, this might lead to multiple governing bodies in each sport, all with their own titles and champions.
From the grassroots sport point of view, and especially concerning its funding, we can see there a threat. Would the private organisers of the competitions contribute to the financing of grassroots sport in the same way, as does the internal solidarity mechanism of sport? This is a million euro question. IOC President Thomas Bach raised this issue when he was speaking in Brussels to the Sport Ministers of the EU Member States at the Council meeting in the end of November. He called on Europe to respect and preserve the European Sports Model. “It is my sincere hope that we do not lose sight of the important social role of sport by equating it with commercial sports business. We are deeply concerned about certain interpretations of the European treaty and EU competition law with regard to sports,” he said. “If everything in Europe is looked at only from a business perspective, the social value of sport is lost. Sport is about so much more than business,” he added.
Even though the European Commission made its decision, the case might continue. ISU can appeal against it to the European Court of Justice. ENGSO, along with the international sport movement will eagerly follow how the case unfolds.