POSTED: December 14th 2017
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JOHN GOODBODY: Ruling on skaters may impact on other sports

The European Commission is looking into the ISU's penalties on skaters in commercial events © European Union
The European Commission is looking into the ISU's penalties on skaters in commercial events © European Union


THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) In international football, the name of Jean-Marc Bosman has special significance. It is not because the Belgian player was particularly distinguished. He is not known for his skill or athletic ability but his more talented peers still owe him a debt which they should never forget.

In 1990, Bosman was playing for RFC Liege when his contract expired. He wanted to move to Dunkerque in the French League but the two clubs could not agree a transfer fee and so Bosman was obliged to stay with Liege on a decreased salary.

But he decided to take the case to the European Court of Justice claiming that he had been subjected to a "restraint of trade" and that, under the European law of "free movement of labour", he was entitled both to go to Dunkerque as his contract had expired and also without Liege receiving a transfer fee.

Despite opposition from UEFA, the European governing body of football, backed by Fifa, the world body, Bosman won the case in 1995. The impact in Europe, where most of the world's richest clubs are situated, has been enormous, greatly adding to the bargaining power of players.

Now the names of Dutch speed skaters Mark Tuitert, gold medallist at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and his colleague Nels Kersholt may eventually become as celebrated as Bosman. They had challenged the right of the International Skating Union to penalise competitors, who had participated in commercial events, which had not been sanctioned by the world governing body.

Last week, the European Commission agreed saying that ISU had broken the European Union's (EU) anti-trust regulations. The Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, accepted that international sports federations did have an important role in the careers of athletes ensuring proper regards for health and safety as well as the integrity of competitions.

But she added: "The severe penalties the ISU imposes on skaters also serve to protect its own commercial interests and prevent others from setting up their own events. The ISU now has to comply with our decision and open up new opportunities for athletes and competing organisers to the benefit of all ice skating fans."

The Commission says that if the ISU does not comply it faces a fine of up to five percent of its average daily world-wide turnover. It stated: "In particular, the ISU should not impose or threaten to impose unjustified penalties on athletes, who participate in competitions that pose no risk to legitimate sports objectives."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had wanted all such cases to be adjudicated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne but the two skaters had clearly realised, and they were right, that they had a better chance of success of going straight to the EU.

In November, Dr. Thomas Bach, the IOC President, had addressed a meeting of the European Council of Sports Ministers, saying that the Olympic Movement was "deeply concerned" about how  the EU competition law was being interpreted in relation to sport, which has a social rather than purely business value.

This is true but this does not mean that it precludes an entrepreneur from setting up his own competitions alongside those of an international federation and attracting entries from leading athletes in a particular sport.

For instance, to take both track and field athletics and swimming, two leading Summer Olympic sports, a promoter could set up a special event or series of events by hiring facilities, attracting sponsors and then contracting individual sportsmen and women to take part, without the permission of the international or national governing bodies.

The ISU is now planning to appeal the ruling. On the result may depend a hugely important development in international sport.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.


Keywords · John Goodbody · Olympics


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