The European Commission has held that the eligibility rules for the International Skating Union (ISU) are in breach of EU competition law and prevent athletes from competing in independent competitions through fear of ISU sanctions.

The Investigation

The European Commission started investigating the ISU following a complaint from two Dutch professional speed skaters who wanted to compete in other events, not organised or sanctioned by the ISU.

The ISU rules prohibited athletes from competing in independent competitions and allowed it to penalise such athletes through suspension or even banned for life from all major international competitions, including the Olympics and World Championships.

Athletes, in reality, cannot take such risks and therefore the ISU rules had the effect of preventing skaters from taking part in non-ISU sanctioned competitions. This also meant that non-sanctioned competitions could not go ahead, as athletes were unable to compete in them and the ISU were the only body who could organise official competitions.

The Decision

The European Commission therefore found that the ISU’s eligibility rules breached EU competition law by restricting competition in the skating competition market. The ISU will have to abolish or amend its eligibility rules, in order to comply with EU competition law. The Commission recommends moving away from rules that focus on the commercial interests of the ISU to rules that allow athletes to participate in third party competitions, as long as their participation does not impact on their health or legitimate sporting objectives.

The Commission has not fined the ISU for the breach of EU competition law, but will be ensuring that the ISU comply with its decision. If the ISU does not comply with the decision, the Commission will be able to fine the ISU up to 5% of its daily worldwide turnover, for each day it continues to be in breach of EU competition law and the Commission’s decision.

Although most sports are run through governing bodies, such as the ISU, that often have a pyramid structure that favours the governing body and its sanctioned events, the Commission is not trying to interfere with this however will step in when the rules and regulations are designed for the commercial gain of the governing body and are unfair and anti-competitive for athletes.

Whilst many have argued that the competition rules should be aimed at business and not sport, the ISU decision makes it clear that just because the business is a sport, it is not immune from the same rules as everyone else.