POSTED: June 7th 2017

NEIL WILSON: Are Olympic sports skating on thin ice?

Dutch speed skater Mark Tuitfert at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics winning the gold medal © Bjarte Hetland
Dutch speed skater Mark Tuitfert at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics winning the gold medal © Bjarte Hetland

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) The full attention of the Olympic movement  as this week ends will be on a meeting, of the IOC executive board in Lausanne, Switzerland, which could lead to great change in the future selection of host cities.

The possibility of Paris and Los Angeles divvying up the 2024 and 2028 summer Games between them is probably of lesser importance, except to those two bidding teams. Of more significance may be the recommendations of a panel of the four vice-presidents on wholesale changes for future bids, starting with the 2026 winter Games.

So excuse me if I digress from that matter of primary importance to a little matter which may threaten one of the fundamentals of the international sporting federations that make up the Olympic movement.  In essence the question if whether they are above the law. Or at least one in particular.

The issue arises because of a case brought against the International Skating Union by two speed skaters, Olympic champion Mark Tuitfert and world champion Niels Kerstholt. Their legal representative, Ben Van Rompuy, argues that ISU rules are in breach of European Union anti-trust legislation.

The two skaters were offered by a competition organiser not recognised by the ISU a fee of 25,000 Euros ($28,200) to appear in a two-day, out-of-season event. The ISU threatened a ban from its events including the Olympics for skaters that accepted it.

Last October the EU Commissioner for Competition accepted that there was a case to be answered and opened a formal investigation.  It happened to coincide with widespread lobbying by Olympic sports to be given exemption from EU law on the grounds of the specificity of sport.

As the ISU argued in a statement: "A neo-liberal and deregulated approach to sport could destroy the Olympic values underpinning sport."

Van Rompuy, in answer, says that the dominant position of sports federations amount to a monopoly, illegal under EU rules currently governing 28 European nations and several more closely associated with them, including Switzerland where the ISU is headquartered.

Swimming, volleyball, hockey, sailing and equestrian sports have similarly restrictive rules on non-federation events which could impose lengthy bans. Boxing goes further with a possible life ban.  Under EU law that could very well prove to be an illegal restriction of trade.

Van Rompuy argues that an EU ban will not result in free-for-all deregulation. He believes that a EU ruling  in the skaters' favour would merely demand that rules are "genuinely designed to achieve legitimate objectives in the interest of the sport."

The European Elite Athletes Association which claims to represent 25,000 athletes and the World Players Association representing 85,000 in 60 countries both support the two skaters.  "Every athlete deserves justice, every athlete deserves equality, every athlete deserves the chance to compete," says the EEAA's campaigning mantra.

Wheels grind very slowly at the European Union. The decisions on Paris and Los Angeles as well as future bidding processes will almost certainly be concluded in September before the EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestagen makes her ruling. But ultimately what she concludes may have at least as much impact on the Olympic sports movement.

** NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

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

Keywords · Olympics · Neil Wilson

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