Skater’s Lawsuit May End Sports Bodies’ Grip on Competion

Two Olympic speed skaters filed an antitrust complaint in Europe that may prevent sports governing bodies from banning athletes for taking part in big-money events that fans can bet on.

Mark Tuitert, a 1,500-meter speed skating gold medalist at the 2010 Winter Games, and short-track world champion Niels Kerstholt have gone to the European Commission to block the International Skating Union from banning them for life for participating in a new competition in Dubai with 1.4 million euros ($1.7 million) in prize money. The antitrust filing in June by the two Dutchmen may affect not just speed skating but also other sports such as swimming, field hockey and volleyball.

The ISU threat is “out of all proportion,” Tuitert said in an interview. “It’s about our livelihood, and also about promoting our sport in a better way globally.”

The inaugural Dubai Icederby Grand Prix, which was to have been held in October, was canceled after the Lausanne, Switzerland-based ISU said in March it wouldn’t sanction Icederby events because they are “possibly being closely connected to betting.” Even though gambling isn’t allowed in Dubai, the ISU added participation would lead to a loss of eligibility for anyone participating, coaching, officiating or volunteering in the out-of-season competition. Icederby organizers envision an annual tour to countries including South Korea and the U.S.

Winter Olympics

EU competition law is applicable to Switzerland-based sports bodies such as the ISU as long as their rules have implications for the European market.

While speed skaters earn a good living in the Netherlands, which won 23 medals at the Sochi Olympics, athletes from other countries often struggle financially in a sport that’s only in the global spotlight every four years during the Winter Olympics.

A long-track speed skater may earn as much as $109,000 in a season from 13 ISU events, while a short-tracker could make $31,900 from winning all eight competitions.

Just taking part in the Dubai race, which would have featured about 50 long-track and short-track skaters competing against each other on a 220-meter (721-foot) rink, would have paid a minimum of $37,650 and a maximum of $130,000.

In an open letter sent to EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager last month, the skaters call the ISU sanction a “grave injustice,” and in breach of European competition rules because it restricts the incomes of athletes. The ISU is abusing its “worldwide monopoly position,” according to the skaters.

The governing body declined to comment.

Earlier Interventions

On Nov. 19, Vestager, a commissioner from Denmark, tweeted to Tuitert that she was looking into his filing.

“It will probably take a while before I come back to you,” she wrote on Twitter. “Hope that’s OK.”

EU regulators have intervened in other sports, with rulings changing broadcast contracts for car racing and soccer. A landmark 1995 court verdict allowed free agency for soccer players. That ruling, in the case of Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman, led to a boom in international player moves because the decision prevented leagues from imposing limits on players from other EU countries.

The skaters have “a good chance” of winning, according to Linde Bremmer, an attorney-at-law at Dutch firm AKD in Brussels who specializes in European and competition law. “One of the questions the Commission may be asking is: Are there no other means to tackle the issue of betting other than a life ban on taking part in a competition such as Icederby?” she added.

Other Sports

“This is not just about speed skating,” Ben van Rompuy, a senior researcher and consultant at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut in The Hague, said in interview.

“The European Commission has a chance to set an important precedent which may benefit thousands of athletes,” said Van Rompuy, who heads the Asser International Sports Law Center and is representing the skaters in their antitrust proceedings.

Sports with similar restrictions in place include volleyball, swimming, gymnastics, cricket and field hockey, he said.

The Dutch skaters are supported by EU Athletes, a federation of European professional athletes associations and unions representing more than 25,000 people in sports including soccer, rugby and cycling.

Two weeks ago, six reigning Olympic champions including the Netherlands’ Sven Kramer and Ireen Wust signed an open letter in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant in support of the two skaters.

“It could be a landmark case, because the legal framework is really not adapted for athletes working in the sports sector,” Jean-Francois Reymond, general secretary of EU Athletes, said in an interview.

The governing bodies are trying to restrict competitions to maintain control over their sports, he said.

“Making a living out of speed skating can be quite complex, and for once they have an opportunity to get a decent wage and provide support for their family, and their governing body doesn’t allow them to do that,” Reymond said. “It is totally unfair.”

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