ISU voices disappointment after EC launches antitrust investigation

The International Skating Union (ISU) has expressed its “surprise and disappointment” after it was confirmed that the European Commission (EC) is to launch an investigation into current rules that enable the sport’s global governing body to ban skaters from its own competitions if they take part in non-approved events.

The development today (Monday) comes after Dutch Olympic speed skaters Mark Tuitert (pictured) and Niels Kerstholt turned to the EC in June 2014 in an effort to stop the ISU from imposing bans on skaters that compete in big-money ‘Ice Derby’ events. Run by Korean event organiser Icederby International, Ice Derby racing offers unprecedented prize money in an effort to attract the world’s best skaters.

Tuitert and Kerstholt said the ISU had threatened lifetime bans for athletes that opt to take part in Ice Derby events. Such bans would prevent skaters from competing at future winter Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cups.

The EC has now responded by launching an investigation into the ISU rules to establish whether the regulations are fair, stating that lifetime bans “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: “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.”

In response, the ISU issued a statement in which it stressed that its current rules are “inherent and proportionate” to the integrity of the sport. It added: “This is particularly important when betting is involved, as in the case at hand.

“The rules are also crucial for ensuring that skaters’ health and safety are not compromised by unauthorised skating events, a particular concern in speed skating.  These legitimate concerns – and not commercial considerations – have always been at the heart of the ISU’s eligibility rules.

“The ISU had co-operated fully with the Commission on this matter and will continue to do so. The ISU is now considering its legal options. In any event, the ISU notes that the opening of proceedings does not imply any wrongdoing on behalf of the ISU and is without prejudice to the outcome of the case.