EU raps skating federation in key ruling

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Brussels (AFP)

The EU on Friday ordered the International Skating Union to change rules that prevent speed skaters competing in non-ISU competitions, in a decision that could set a precedent for other sports.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said the ISU must scrap "disproportionately punitive" penalties aimed at preventing athletes from taking part in lucrative events not under its own jurisdiction.

The decision has been compared to the landmark 1995 ruling involving Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman, which allowed players to move more freely between clubs in the European Union and is largely credited with inflating transfer fees.

The ISU hit back, saying it strongly disagreed with the Commission's ruling, adding: "The decision fails 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."

But European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said while international sports federations did have an important role to play protecting competitors' health and safety, their behaviour was restrictive.

"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," she said.

"The ISU now has to comply with our decision, modify its rules, and open up new opportunities for athletes and competing organisers, to the benefit of all ice skating fans."

The skating federation also argued that it did not ban independent bodies from organising events "provided the organisers adhere to the ISU's relevant standards".

The focus of the issue is competitions organised by companies from South Korea, the host nation of the 2018 Winter Olympics where speed skating is extremely popular.

The Commission ruling followed a complaint by Dutch Olympic gold medal-winning speed skater Mark Tuitert and international teammate Niels Kerstholt who were threatened with a ban for life if they took part in events run by a South Korean company.

The Commission said the ISU's policy "has limited the development of alternative and innovative speed skating competitions, and deprived ice-skating fans from following other events".