Brussels, 5 October 2015
The European Commission has opened a formal antitrust investigation into International Skating Union (ISU) rules that permanently ban skaters from competitions such as the Winter Olympics and the ISU World and European Championships if they take part in events not approved by the ISU.
The investigation follows a complaint by two Dutch ice speed skaters, Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt. The Commission will in particular investigate whether ISU rules are unduly preventing athletes from exercising their profession by putting disproportionate and unjustified obstacles in the way of companies not linked to the ISU that want to organise alternative ice-skating events. Indeed, ISU rules threaten athletes who participate in such events with a lifetime ban. This may prevent alternative event organisers from entering the market or drive them out of business. If confirmed, such practices could constitute anti-competitive agreements and/or an abuse of a dominant market position in breach of EU antitrust rules.
EU Commissioner in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager said: “For many, sport is a passion – but it can also be a business. We recognise and respect the role of international sports federations to set the rules of the game and to ensure proper governance of sport, notably in terms of the health and safety of the athletes and the integrity of competitions. However, in the case of the International Skating Union we will investigate if such rules are being abused to enforce a monopoly over the organisation of sporting events or otherwise restrict competition. Athletes can only compete at the highest level for a limited number of years, so there must be good reasons for preventing them to take part in events.”
“The Commission has decided to pursue this investigation because it raises specific allegations of breaches of competition law at the international level rather than wider issues of internal governance or rule-making in a sport federation.”
The opening of proceedings does not prejudge in any way the outcome of the investigation.
The ISU is the sole body recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to administer the sports of figure skating and speed skating on ice. Its members are national ice-skating associations.
Sporting rules 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. On the basis of EU Court case law, sporting rules are compatible with EU law if they pursue a legitimate objective and if the restrictions that they create are inherent and proportionate to reaching this objective. This assessment can be performed by national courts, national competition authorities, particularly vis-à-vis national bodies, and by the Commission, especially in the case of practices at international level.
Many disputes about sporting rules raise primarily issues related to governance of the sport, i.e. relations between different stakeholders belonging or being closely connected to the structure headed by sports federations. Such disputes can usually be best handled by national courts rather than by the European Commission. The same goes for disputes resulting from the application of sporting rules to individuals, e.g. athletes being sanctioned for breach of relevant anti-doping or match-fixing regulations, that are best handled by relevant arbitration bodies or national courts.
Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) prohibit respectively anticompetitive agreements and the abuse of dominant market positions. The implementation of these provisions is defined in the EU’s Antitrust Regulation (Council Regulation No 1/2003), which can also be applied by national competition authorities.
Article 11(6) of the Antitrust Regulation provides that the initiation of proceedings by the Commission relieves the competition authorities of the Member States of their competence to also apply EU competition rules to the practices concerned. Article 16(1) of the same Regulation provides that national courts must avoid giving decisions which would conflict with a decision contemplated by the Commission in proceedings it has initiated.
The Commission has informed the ISU, the complainants and the competition authorities of the Member States and of Switzerland that it has opened proceedings in this case.
There is no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anti-competitive conduct. The duration of an antitrust investigation depends on a number of factors, including the complexity of the case, the extent to which the undertaking concerned cooperates with the Commission and the exercise of the rights of defence.
More information is available on the Commission’s competition website, in the public case register under the case number AT.40208