Dutch speedskaters score big win for athletes’ rights

A pair of Dutch speedskaters scored a big win for athletes’ rights on Friday, earning the freedom to compete in big-money events around the world.

The European Union’s executive arm ruled that the International Skating Union is in breach of EU anti-trust laws in the way that it imposes ”severe penalties” on athletes participating in speedskating competitions that are not authorized by the governing body.

The sanction on skaters, it said, could be lifetime bans from events authorized by the ISU – a crippling cost to athletes who only have a few years to make their mark in the sport. Outside Olympic years, speedskating finds it tough to find appeal outside its traditional hotbed of the Netherlands.

”International sports federations play an important role in athletes’ careers – they protect their health and safety and the integrity of competitions,” said Margrethe Vestager, the commissioner responsible for competition matters. ”However, the severe penalties the International Skating Union imposes on skaters also serve to protect its own commercial interests and prevent others from setting up their own events.”

The ISU, which also governs figure skating, said it rejected a number of the commission’s conclusions and argued that its stance against unauthorized events was ”common sense.” It also dismissed any notion that it has been driven by commercial interests, and said it would review the decision and potentially file an appeal to European courts.

The EU investigation started two years ago following a complaint by Dutch speedskaters Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt. Tuitert, the 2010 Olympic champion over 1,500 meters, and Kerstholdt wanted to join a novel South Korean competition in Dubai, the Icederby, but say they were threatened with a ban if they did.

In a tweet, Tuitert said the decision was ”great and historical news …. with regards to respecting athletes rights.”

For its part, the ISU said the decision failed to consider ”the specific nature of sport by putting commercial interests ahead of the principles of integrity, health and safety that protect fair play in sport” and dismissed the commission’s claim that the eligibility rules preclude independent organizers from conducting skating events.

”This is not true,” it said. ”Fact is that the ISU does authorize independent events, provided the organizers adhere to the ISU’s relevant standards.”

The governing body also said it had warned skaters about the risks of participating in the lucrative Dubai event ”due to the close links of the organizer to betting in Asia and the fact that the organizer had unequivocally refused to follow the ISU’s code of ethics.”

”The decision harms not only the ISU but also skaters and the entire skating community,” it added.

Though found to be in breach of EU laws, the ISU was spared a fine if it complied with the ruling. That, Vestager said, could involve the abolition of the eligibility criteria, but she indicated that other workarounds, involving changes to the rules, were possible. However, she warned the governing body that a fine of 5 percent of the ISU’s average daily worldwide turnover could be imposed if it fails to comply within 90 days.

”We will be watching closely,” she said.

While stressing that it had never handed down a lifetime ban to any athlete for participating in an unauthorized event, the ISU said it has ”not closed the door” on future changes to its sanctions policy that are ”in line with its fundamental objectives.”

Vestager insisted that the ruling wasn’t an attempt by the EU to encroach on the structure of the ISU or of that of any other sporting governing body.

She said it ”makes sense” that speedskaters would want to compete in other events, especially as the careers of professional athletes don’t last long.

”They should have a chance to get the most out of those years while they’re at the top of their game,” Vestager said.

The ISU’s members are the national ice skating associations. The ISU and its members organize and generate revenues from speedskating competitions, including from major international competitions such as the Olympics and the world championships.