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Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

1.     Introduction

Christmas has come very early this year for the EU sports law world in the form of the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) judgment in TopFit eV, Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband eV by exclusively analyzing the case on the basis of European citizenship rights and its application to rules of sports governing bodies that limit their exercise. The case concerned an Italian national, Daniele Biffi, who has been residing in Germany for over 15 years and participates in athletic competitions in the senior category, including the German national championships. In 2016, the Deutscher Leichtathletikverband (DLV), the German Athletics Federation, decided to omit a paragraph in its rules that allowed the participation of EU nationals in national championships on the same footing as German citizens. As a result, participation in the national championship was subject to prior authorization of the organizers of the event, and even if participation was granted, the athlete may only compete outside of classification and may not participate in the final heat of the competition. After having been required to compete out of classification for one national championship and even dismissed from participating in another, Mr. Biffi and TopFit, his athletics club based in Berlin, brought proceedings to a German national court. The national court submitted a request for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU in which it asked essentially whether the rules of the DLV, which may preclude or at least require a non-national to compete outside classification and the final heat, are contrary to Articles 18, 21 and 165 TFEU. Articles 18 and 21 TFEU, read together, preclude discrimination on the basis of nationality against European citizens exercising their free movement. The underlying (massive) question here is whether these provisions can be relied on by an amateur athlete against a private body, the DLV.

Covered in a previous blog, the Advocate General’s (AG) opinion addressed the case from an entirely different angle. Instead of tackling the potentially sensitive questions attached with interpreting the scope of European citizenship rights, the opinion focused on the application of the freedom of establishment because the AG found that participation in the national championships was sufficiently connected to the fact Mr. Biffi was a professional trainer who advertised his achievements in those competitions on his website. Thus, according to the AG, there was a sufficient economic factor to review the case under a market freedom. The CJEU, in its decision, sidelined this approach and took the application of European citizenship rights head on.

The following will dissect the Court’s decision by examining the three central legal moves of the ruling: the general applicability of EU law to amateur sport, the horizontal applicability of European citizenship rights, and justifications and proportionality requirements of access restrictions to national competitions.

 

2.     Applicability of EU Law to Amateur Sport

The CJEU has long made the distinction that sporting activity falls under the scope of EU law “in so far as it constitutes an economic activity.”[1]  Since this ruling in the 1974, treaty revisions, the natural development of the CJEU’s case law, and the increasing economic interests involved in sport has meant that defining the boundaries of EU law’s application to sport has become increasingly difficult. These borderline cases can especially arise when an amateur athlete is barred from a competition, since amateur athletes prima facie do not have an economic interest. For example, the CJEU in the Deliège case explored the extent to which amateur athletes may enjoy market freedoms. The Court ruled that amateur athletes may come within the scope of EU law when the exercise of their sporting activity is sufficiently connected to an economic sphere. In this case, an amateur athlete’s sponsorship contracts and grants were considered to be sufficient economic activity to fall within the scope of the freedom to provide services.[2] Amateur athletes in this case still needed to demonstrate that they had a minimum economic interest that was being affected by a sport rule. Sporting rules lacking economic effect would thus fall outside the scope of the market freedoms.

The TopFit ruling changes this understanding because Mr. Biffi is an amateur athlete and instead of invoking the market freedoms, he decided to rely on his European citizenship rights. These rights derive from being a citizen of the Union and do not require the exercise of an economic activity to be applicable. Indeed, Article 21 TFEU gives the free movement of persons a whole new dimension where an economic interest is no longer a prerequisite to fall under the aegis of the fundamental freedoms.[3] The CJEU confirmed this reality in Baumbast when it declared that the introduction of Union citizenship “has conferred a right, for every citizen, to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States” regardless of their status as economically active or nonactive.[4] Thus, the Court in TopFit states, in reference to other cases, that one’s exercise of their free movement under their European citizenship, includes the “access to leisure activities” and that Article 21 (1) TFEU also intends “to promote the gradual integration of the EU citizen concerned in the society of the host Member State.”[5] It then extends this reasoning to sport by relying on Article 165 TFEU, the Article which explicitly introduced sport into the Treaties, which “reflects the considerable social importance of sport” and that the practice of an amateur sport helps “to create bonds with the society of the State” or “to consolidate them.”[6] The Court goes even further to unequivocally state that this is the “case with regard to participation in sporting competitions at all levels.”[7] On this basis, it is possible for amateur sportspersons to rely on Article 18 and 21 TFEU.[8] Therefore, the Court has confirmed that EU law, through rights derived from European citizenship, may apply to restrictions of free movement that arise from ‘all levels’ of amateur sport, basically extending the reach of EU law applicability to all types of sports activity on the territory of the EU, provided by public authorities or (as we will see in the next section) by private ones.  

 

3.     Horizontal Applicability of European Citizenship Rights

The next issue that materializes from the ability of amateur sports persons to rely on European citizenship rights is whether these rights may be invoked against private entities, the sport governing bodies. Indeed, sports throughout the European Union is primarily governed by a network of private associations integrated in the famous pyramid of sports. Treaty articles may be relied upon horizontally, meaning against other private parties, by individuals so long as the relevant article is “sufficiently clear, precise and unconditional to be invoked by individuals.”[9] AG Tanchev rightly argued in his opinion that giving Article 21 TFEU horizontal direct effect would be a “significant constitutional step” by being the “first time this century that a provision of the Treaty has been selected to join the small number of provisions having the quality of horizontal direct effect.”[10] In particular, the AG explains that Article 21 TFEU has always been used in relation to disputes arising between an individual and the State and giving horizontal direct effect to Article 21 TFEU could damage legal certainty.[11] 

Regardless, the Court in TopFit was not dissuaded and decided to allow Mr. Biffi to rely on Articles 18 and 21 TFEU against the DLV, a private entity. It explains that the fundamental objectives of the European Union “would be compromised if the abolition of barriers of national origin could be neutralised by obstacles” emanating from private entities.[12] The Court then goes on to elaborate that this principle applies “where a group or organisation exercises a certain power over individuals and is in a position to impose on them conditions which adversely affect the exercise of the fundamental freedoms.”[13] Such an interpretation of the horizontal direct effect of Article 21 TFEU is in line with the ‘relatively’ limited horizontal direct effect already described by De Mol for Article 18 TFEU that “concerns private relations in which one party is weaker than the other party.”[14] Thus, in order for one to invoke Article 21 TFEU horizontally, it is necessary to scrutinize the nature of the relationship and power (im)balance between the parties. The more asymmetrical the relationship, the more likely Article 21 TFEU may be relied on horizontally. On the whole, TopFit confirms that not only may Article 21 TFEU have horizontal direct effect but that perhaps this horizontal effect is not completely unlimited, although it is questionable what the practical consequences of this distinction actually entails.

In the sporting context, however, the message is clear: non-economic sporting activity, such as amateur level sports with zero economic benefits derived from it, falls under the scope of EU law and Article 21 TFEU may be invoked by EU citizens against the private associations which are more often than not ruling sports at a local, regional and national level in the Member States. In short, all (economic and non-economic) sports activity is now subjected to the control of EU law (in particular with regard to anti-discrimination).


4.     Justifications and Proportionality of Access Restrictions to National Competitions

After having found that Mr. Biffi may rely on his European citizenship rights against the DLV, the Court quite readily finds that there has been a restriction to this right. It asserts that the DLV’s rules could result in non-German athletes receiving less investment from their clubs since they may not participate in the national championships in the same manner as German athletes. Consequently, “athletes of other Member States would be less able to integrate themselves” in their club and the wider society of the Member State, and the effects of this “are likely to make amateur sport less attractive for EU citizens.”[15] However, a restriction on a fundamental freedom may be justified if it pursues a legitimate objective and meets the proportionality requirements. The Court goes on to entertain several justifications put forward by the DLV and firmly rejects each as an illegitimate objective. These rejected justifications include: “the argument that the public expects that the national champion of a country will have the nationality of that country”; that the national champion is used to represent his country in the international championship (it was clear that this was not the case for those competing in the senior category); and a “need to adopt the same rules for all age categories” (since it was obvious the DLV had adopted different rules in regards to national selection depending on the age category).[16] In the end, the Court only accepts one justification concerning preventing the participation of non-nationals in the final heat specifically due to the nature of eliminatory heats in some sports. It recognizes that the participation of a non-national may prevent a national from “winning the championship and of hindering the designation of the best nationals.”[17]

Having found a legitimate justification, the Court moves on to considerations of proportionality and reasons that “non-admission of non-nationals to the final must no go beyond what is necessary”, and it recalls the fact that the exclusion of non-nationals is only recent.[18] In other words, the Court essentially finds it rather strange that a sudden rule change became necessary to prevent the participation of non-nationals in the finals and, in light of this, finds the means to be unnecessary and generally disproportionate to the aim sought.

Next, it also recalls that participation of non-nationals was also subject to the authorization of the organizers and had resulted in Mr. Biffi’s complete exclusion in one competition. The Court explains that such an authorization scheme must “be based on objective and non-discriminatory criteria which are known in advance” to be justified. In regard to proportionality, it finds that “total non-admission” of a non-national athlete to the national championship in this circumstance to be disproportionate because due to the DLV’s own admission, there were ways for athletes to compete in the competition, either in the preliminary heats and/or outside classification. None of the DLV’s justifications were able to survive the proportionality requirements.

However, this does not mean that there could never be a legitimate justification that can meet the proportionality requirements. Interestingly, before it examined any of the DLV’s submitted justifications, the Court essentially gave a hint to sport governing bodies wishing to introduce nationality restrictions to the organization of their national competitions. It states that it is legitimate to limit the award of the national title to a national of the relevant Member State because the nationality requirement is an essential feature of holding the title.[19] Thus, it seems the Court would readily accept a restriction to the ability of non-national athletes to actually win the title.


5.     Conclusion

The CJEU took full advantage of the case before it by demonstrating how a lack of an economic interest does not give sport governing bodies full reign to prevent amateur athletes seeking to further integrate themselves in their host Member State’s society through amateur sport. It also signals the Court’s willingness to observe and take into consideration the specific characteristics of the sport and competition structure in question. Additionally, TopFit has opened exciting new judicial avenues for the exercise and enforcement of European citizenship rights against powerful private entities. In particular, sport governing bodies should pay close attention to the TopFit ruling because it further illustrates how they may exercise their regulatory autonomy provided they follow the analytical framework imposed by the CJEU in its control of discriminatory restrictions to market freedoms and European citizenship rights.

[1] Case 36-74 B.N.O. Walrave and L.J.N. Koch v Association Union cycliste internationale, Koninklijke Nederlandsche Wielren Unie and Federación Española Ciclismo [1974] ECR 1974 –01405 para 4.

[2] Joined Cases C-51/96 and C-191/97 Christelle Deliège v Ligue francophone de judo et disciplines associées ASBL, Ligue belge de judo ASBL, Union européenne de judo [2000] ECR I-02549 para 51.

[3] See Section III, Ferdinand Wollenschlager, ‘A New Fundamental Freedom beyond Market Integration: Union Citizenship and its Dynamics for Shifting the Economic Paradigm of European Integration’ [2011] European Law Journal 1.

[4] Case C-413/99 Baumbast and R v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2002] ECR I-08091 para 81 and 83.

[5] Case C-22/18 TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. [2019] ECLI:EU:C:2019:497 para 31-32.

[6] ibid para 33-34.

[7] ibid para 34.

[8] ibid para 35.

[9] Case C-438-05 International Transport Workers’ Federation and Finnish Seamen’s Union v Viking Line ABP and OÜ Viking Line Eesti [2007] ECR I-10779 para 66; see also Paul Craig and Gráinne de Búrca, EU Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (6th edn, OUP 2015) 192.

[10] Case C-22/18 TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. [2019] ECLI:EU:C:2019:181, Opinion of AG Tanchev, para 56 and 100.

[11] ibid para 101 and 103.

[12] TopFit (n 5) para 38.

[13] ibid para 39.

[14] Mirjam de Mol, ‘The Novel Approach of the CJEU on the Horizontal Direct Effect of the EU Principle of Non-Discrimination: (Unbridled) Expansionism of EU law?’ [2011] Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law 109.

[15] TopFit (n 5) para 46-47.

[16] ibid para 54 and 56-57.

[17] ibid para 61.

[18] ibid para 62

[19] ibid para 50.

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Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines 

Caster Semenya learns that it is not always easy for victims of discrimination to prevail in court

The world of sport held its breath as the Secretary General of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) Matthieu Reeb stood before the microphones on 1 May 2019 to announce the verdict reached by three arbitrators (one of them dissenting) in the landmark case involving the South African Olympic and world champion Caster Semenya. Somewhat surprisingly, the panel of arbitrators came to the conclusion that the IAAF’s regulations requiring female athletes with differences of sexual development to reduce their natural testosterone level below the limit of 5 nmol/L and maintain that reduced level for a continuous period of at least six months in order to be eligible to compete internationally at events between 400 metres and a mile, were necessary, reasonable and proportionate to attain the legitimate aim of ensuring fair competition in female athletics, even though the panel recognised that the regulations were clearly discriminatory. Ms Semenya’s legal team decided to file an appeal against the ruling at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. For the time being, this appears to be a good move since the tribunal ordered the IAAF at the beginning of June to suspend the application of the challenged regulations to Ms Semenya with immediate effect, which means that Ms Semenya for now continues to run medication-free.

 

Champions League ban looms on Manchester City

On 18 May 2019, Manchester City completed a historic domestic treble after defeating Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup Final. And yet there is a good reason to believe that the club’s executives did not celebrate as much as they would under normal circumstances. This is because only two days before the FA Cup Final the news broke that the chief investigator of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) had decided to refer Manchester City’s case concerning allegations of financial fair play irregularities to the CFCB adjudicatory chamber for a final decision. Thus, the chief investigator most likely found that Manchester City had indeed misled UEFA over the real value of its sponsorship income from the state-owned airline Etihad and other companies based in Abu Dhabi, as the leaked internal emails and other documents published by the German magazine Der Spiegel suggested. The chief investigator is also thought to have recommended that a ban on participation in the Champions League for at least one season be imposed on the English club. The club’s representatives responded to the news with fury and disbelief, insisting that the CFCB investigatory chamber had failed to take into account a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence it had been provided with. They eventually decided not to wait for the decision of the CFCB adjudicatory chamber, which is yet to be adopted, and meanwhile took the case to the CAS, filing an appeal against the chief investigator’s referral.

 

The Brussels Court of Appeal dismisses Striani’s appeal on jurisdictional grounds

The player agent Daniele Striani failed to convince the Brussels Court of Appeal that it had jurisdiction to entertain his case targeting UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. On 11 April 2019, the respective court dismissed his appeal against the judgment of the first-instance court without pronouncing itself on the question of compatibility of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations with EU law. The court held that it was not competent to hear the case because the link between the regulations and their effect on Mr Striani as a player agent, as well as the link between the regulations and the role of the Royal Belgian Football Association in their adoption and enforcement, was too remote (for a more detailed analysis of the decision, see Antoine’s blog here). The Brussels Court of Appeal thus joined the European Court of Justice and the European Commission as both these institutions had likewise rejected to assess the case on its merits in the past.

 

Sports Law Related Decisions

 

Official Documents and Press Releases

CAS

FIFA

IOC

UEFA

WADA

Other


In the news

Doping

Football

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Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.


1.     Introduction

The surge of e-sports has stimulated a lively discussion on the essential characteristics of sport and whether e-sports, in general, can be considered a sport. However, one should not overlook the fact that e-sports encompass a broad range of video games that fundamentally differ from one another. Thus, as one commentator recently underlined, “the position of video games and the e-sport competitions based on them should be analysed on a case-by-case basis.”[1] In this spirit, this blog aims to provide a concise analysis of one of these e-sports, League of Legends (LoL), and one of its main competitions, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), to assess whether it could be considered a sport in the sense of EU law. The LEC offers a fascinating opportunity to examine this issue especially since the previous European League of Legends Championship Series (EU LCS) was rebranded and restructured this year into the LEC.

 

2.     What is League of Legends and the LEC?

At the time of writing, LoL released nearly a decade ago by Riot Games (a game developer based in the USA) and rapidly became one of the most played video games in the world due in part to its free to play business model. This means that anyone can download and play LoL on their computer without ever having to pay anything. In-game microtransactions exist but do not provide any competitive advantage. The game itself involves two teams of five players who each control a ‘champion’, which are characters in the game that each possess unique abilities. A team only wins when it has destroyed the enemy base (‘nexus’). The game is not only a popular video game, but it is a popular e-sport. The most recent world championships finals attracted 99.6 million unique viewers. While these numbers are greatly due to its popularity in China and South Korea, there is also a sizeable European viewership of LoL. For example, the LEC regular season matches have reached a record-breaking 355,000 concurrent viewers in its 2019 spring competition.

The LEC is LoL’s highest level of European competition and is owned and organised by Riot Games who establishes and enforces the rules which apply to the teams participating in the LEC. Consequently, Riot Games is truly at the apex of professional LoL in Europe by setting both the in-game parameters (the rules of the game) and the regulations that govern its competitive play. As explained earlier, Riot Games restructured and rebranded its previous European competition, EU LCS, into the LEC. While previously the EU LCS was characterised by a pyramid structure with a promotion and relegation system familiar to the European sports world, the LEC introduced a franchise model to follow its sibling competition in North America, the League Championship Series (LCS). The LEC itself is a limited liability company registered in the Republic of Ireland as League of Legends European Championship Limited.[2] The LEC buy-in fee for teams already in the EU LCS was reportedly set at 8 million euros and 10.5 million euros for those outside the EU LCS. Additionally, big brands such as KIA, Shell, Foot Locker and Red Bull sponsor the LEC and are featured during the broadcast. Besides being produced and diffused weekly by the official Riot Games English broadcast team in a professional studio in Berlin on Twitch (an online video game livestreaming service) and YouTube, the LEC partners with other official broadcasters who provide coverage of the matches in other languages (French, Spanish, Polish, German, Italian). Nevertheless, before examining the LEC’s position under EU law, a review of the broader arguments on the fundamental traits of sport will contextualise the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) interpretation of the concept of sport.

 

3.     Is LoL played in the LEC a sport competition?

The academic discourse on the definition of sport has provided a plethora of elements and conditions for an aspiring sport to meet in order to be considered a ‘real’ sport. Needless to say, this blog will not be able to address all of them. However, the characteristics identified by Suits and elaborated by Jenny et al. and Abanazir are a good starting point for this brief review.[3] Suits explains that sports are in essence games that require skill, where the skill requires physicality, that the game have a wide following, and that this following have a certain level of stability. Abanazir delved into the concept of stability in the e-sports context by explaining institutionalisation’s central role in achieving permanence.

On the first requirement, there is very little room to argue that professional LoL does not require a great amount of skill. Suits explains that games of skill provide ‘unnecessary obstacles’ (in relation to daily life) “to realize capacities not otherwise realizable” that do not rely on pure chance.[4] Playing LoL is not in any way a necessary part of human life, yet many players practicing LoL play to refine and improve their mechanical skill (the physical element of the game, e.g. muscle memory and reflexes). Chance sometimes plays a role in LoL, but it is rarely a decisive factor in determining the outcome of a competitive match. Generally, Riot Games has taken steps over the years to limit the elements of pure luck in its game.

The role of physical motor skills in e-sports has been explained in detail by van Hilvoorde and Pot, and this blog will not dive into the arguments on whether actions taken in a video game can be considered taking place in the ‘real’ world.[5] Assuming that it does, the skill required in LoL is intrinsically connected to its physicality. LoL is played on a computer with a mouse and a keyboard. High level play requires precise movement of the arm, wrist and/or hand to most effectively control one’s character with the mouse. Additionally, the clicks and inputs registered by one’s fingers on the mouse and keyboard must be timed precisely and with enough practice these movements become muscle memory. The classic example of a game that does not require this sort of physicality is chess because the manner in which one moves a chess piece from a to b does not affect the result of the game. On the other hand, LoL demands precise and timed movements of the player’s arms, wrists, and/or fingers to be played optimally. One can be a LoL strategic genius but without a sufficient level of mechanical skill, it is impossible to become a professional LoL player.

Next, a large following is probably the easiest criteria for LoL and the LEC to fulfil. Between the large viewership that watch the LoL events online and the thousands of spectators that come to watch the championships live, there is very little doubt that LoL and the LEC have a wide following at the moment. However, this point leads into the next element which arguably may be the hardest criteria for it to satisfy in the long term: stability.

Video games and consequently, e-sports, generally reach a point where they have achieved their max popularity and eventually begin to lose players and viewers. Often times, this is the result of newly released video games pushing older and ‘outdated’ games out of the spotlight. LoL has remained at the forefront of e-sports for nearly a decade and there is little suggestion that this will change in the near future. Part of this is Riot Games’ continued support of LoL by regularly updating the game. Updates are released nearly every other week and can range from graphical improvements, balancing the game to ensure the viability of new strategies, the introduction of new champions (currently 143 champions) and tweaks that improve the way the game runs on the computer. Abanazir describes that changes such as these “present a double-edged sword” because while they keep the game fresh for players, they can result in drastic changes to the best strategies (meta) to win the game.[6] Thus, professional teams and players must continually adapt their play to conform to the meta. Nevertheless, updates have never fundamentally changed the goal and overall ‘rules’ of the game. Professional LoL is always two teams of five players, each controlling one champion, aiming to destroy the enemy nexus.

From an outsider’s point of view, it may seem that the constant flux of the meta would truly damage any of LoL’s claim to stability. However, in this context, it is imperative to highlight the institutionalisation of the LEC. Institutionalisation describes the appearance of “standardisation of rules, the formalisation of learning of the games, the development of expertise and finally the emergence of coaches, trainers, officials and governing bodies.”[7] The very fact that the meta often changes have pushed professional teams to hire analysts that review the team’s play and are constantly searching for new and creative ways to play LoL. Additionally, all professional teams have at least one coach who not only define the team’s strategy before each game, but also ensure that players observe strict practice schedules. During LEC matches, referees (Riot Games employees) are always present in order to ensure that the LEC rules are observed, which greatly lends to the idea of a ‘standardisation’ of the rules.[8] In fact, Riot Games directly state that the creation of the LEC Rulebook is to help “unify and standardize the rules used in competitive play.”[9] From this outline, there are many indications that the LEC and LoL have many of the characteristics of a sport and currently have achieved a certain amount of stability and institutionalisation. The true test will be whether these structures continue to last as they have been developed and implemented over the past eight years.

 

4.     A Sport under EU Law?

Recently, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on whether the English Bridge Union could benefit from a sports exemption under the VAT Directive and in doing so examined the concept of sport under that Directive.[10] Furthermore, in this case, Advocate General (AG) Szpunar provided an enlightening opinion to the Court examining the concept of sport in the context of the VAT exemption.[11] Both provide a good opportunity to infer how the Court would perhaps go about determining whether the LEC is a sport competition under EU law. This being said, the sport exception in the current VAT Directive would not apply to the LEC since Article 132 (1) (m) applies only to services provided by non-profit organisations. Nonetheless, should League of Legends European Championship Limited eventually restructure into a non-profit, it would not be far-fetched to imagine a situation in which it would seek to have VAT reimbursed from authorities under a sports exception in the future. After all, Riot Games has repeatedly stated that it does not make a profit on its e-sport activities.[12]

The AG’s opinion began by explaining that the concept of sport in the exemption should be “interpreted in a narrow manner, while bearing in mind the purpose and objective of the exemption.”[13] From this it is clear that the analysis of the concept of sport differs depending on the applicable provision, which could mean that the LEC could be considered a sport competition under one provision and a purely economic activity in another context. The AG goes on to identifying elements which preclude an activity from being considered a sport and states that “where a physical element is not necessary, sport is defined by competition and the fact that equipment is provided by not just one supplier -  which excludes activities without a broad basis in civil society, such as commercial products in the market place, designed by firms for pure consumption (for instance video games).”[14] If this interpretation of the concept of sport had been endorsed by the CJEU, it would have constituted a tremendous obstacle for the LEC. Indeed, if the ‘equipment’ also encompasses the game itself, it is impossible to argue that Riot Games does not hold a monopoly over the supply of LoL. Moreover, Riot Games has made and continues to support LoL in order to make money. In analysing this opinion, Abanazir explains the core issue well: “e-sport competitions based on video games created for purely consumption purposes and organised by persons aimed to profit from these activities may find themselves out of the scope as they are perceived to be devoid of social function.”[15] Indeed, it can seem difficult for the LEC and LoL to argue that it has a deeper ‘social function’ but perhaps this requirement might not be completely insurmountable. An argument could be made that the e-sports aspect of LoL is not only a commercial product made for pure consumption especially because LoL is a free to play game, and Riot Games does not seem to be making any profit in its e-sport related activities. Riot Games and the LEC have also taken steps to enhance the social function of LoL by investing in regional leagues to develop local talent.

In its ruling on the Bridge case, the CJEU sidelined the AG’s approach and decided to focus on a physicality requirement. The Court, in examining the specific VAT provision, found that sport must be “characterised by a not negligible physical element,” and the fact that an activity has elements of competition, professionality and organisation were not deemed sufficient to argue that the activity is a sport for the VAT exemption.[16] Physicality was the central criteria in the CJEU’s interpretation of the concept of sport, but in doing so, it did not give any further clarity as to the threshold of physicality required for an activity to benefit from the VAT sport exemption. It has already been contended above that LoL does have a clear physical element which is intrinsically connected to the game’s skill, yet the question remains whether the physicality would be considered more than negligible by the CJEU.

In summary, if LoL and the LEC were to be examined under the VAT Directive sport exemption, it would be confronted with several challenges. The approach endorsed in the AG’s opinion would have been the most problematic since LoL is mainly a commercial product designed to attract consumers and ultimately profit a private company. However, the CJEU chose to focus its interpretation of the concept of sport on a physicality criterion. This decision may give the LEC a wide enough window to argue that the fine motor skills involved in LoL are enough to fulfil this condition.


5.     Conclusion

In its current form, the LEC would not be able to benefit from the sport exemption in the VAT Directive, but this is just one provision of EU law, and there could be other opportunities where it could attempt to claim to be a sport. In the meantime, this gives an opportunity to Riot Games to continue to develop and emphasise the social function of its e-sports competitions, which might entail building a not-for-profit entity to run the competition and to strengthen the redistribution of economic gains to the grassroots. In any case, LoL and the LEC share many characteristics with established sports, but it remains to be seen if this will be enough to boost its recognition as a ‘real’ sport in law and society.

[1] Cem Abanazir, ‘E-sport and the EU: the view from the English Bridge Union’ (2019) International Sports Law Journal 102.

[2]LEC Rules’ (LoLEsports).

[3] William Morgan, Ethics in Sport (3rd edn, Human Kinetics 2018) ch 1: Elements of Sport by Bernard Suits; Seth Jenny et al., ‘Virtual(ly) Athletes: Where eSports fit within the definition of “Sport”’(2016) Quest 1; Cem Abanazir, ‘Institutionalisation in E-Sports’ (2019) Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 117.

[4] Morgan (n 3) ch 1.

[5] Ivo van Hilvoorde and Niek Pot, ‘Embodiment and fundamental motor skills in eSports’ (2016) Sports, Ethics and Philosophy 14.

[6] Abanazir (n 3).

[7] Jenny et al. (n 3); Abanazir (n 3).

[8] See LEC Rulebook Art. 8.15.

[9] LEC Rules (n 2).

[10] Case C-90/16 The English Bridge Union Limited v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs ECLI:EU:C:2017:814.

[11] Case C-90/16 The English Bridge Union Limited v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs ECLI:EU:C:2017:814, Opinion of AG Szpunar.

[12] Steven Asarch, ‘“League of Legends” cuts esports budget, can Riot Games bounce back?’ (Newsweek, 28 August 2018); Derrick Asiedu head of Global Events at Riot Games confirmed this in a Reddit post: “We’re a long way from breaking even (revenue minus cost equalling 0)”.

[13] English Bridge Union Opinion (n 11) para 21.

[14] English Bridge Union Opinion (n 11) para 38.

[15] Abanazir (n 1).

[16] English Bridge Union (n 10) para 19, 25.

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Editor's note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD candidate at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Her PhD research deals with the establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games.


About three years ago, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) adopted a new version of its Statutes, including a statutory commitment to respect internationally recognized human rights. Since then, FIFA undertook a human rights journey that has been praised by various stakeholders in the sports and human rights field. In early June, the FIFA Congress is scheduled to take a decision that could potentially undo all positive efforts taken thus far.

FIFA already decided in January 2017 to increase the number of teams participating in the 2026 World Cup from 32 to 48. Shortly after, discussions began on the possibility to also expand the number of teams for the 2022 World Cup hosted in Qatar. Subsequently, FIFA conducted a feasibility study, which revealed that the expansion would be feasible but require a number of matches to be hosted in neighbouring countries, explicitly mentioning Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One does not have to be a human rights expert to be highly alarmed by this list of potential co-hosting countries. Nevertheless, the FIFA Council approved of the possibility to expand in March 2019, paving the way for the FIFA Congress to take a decision on the matter. Obviously, the advancement of the expansion decision raises serious doubts over the sincerity of FIFA’s reforms and human rights commitments.


The Human Rights Climate in Potential Co-hosts

The list of human rights issues commonly linked to the potential co-hosts is long.[i] All of them uphold severe restrictions on the freedom of expression and regularly silence activists. Women face discrimination under the law of a number of these countries, and the rights of migrant workers are not adequately protected, leading to abusive situations and forced labour.[ii] Arbitrary arrests and unfair trials and sentencing are widespread in Oman.[iii] Bahrain has a habit of detaining, torturing and deporting human rights defenders and Kuwait refuses to recognize the 100,000 Bidun living in the country as Kuwaiti citizens, leaving them stateless. The latest add-on to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights track record is the mass execution of 37 individuals, which proceeded against vociferous criticism from other states and human rights organizations about the lack of due process and allegations of torture having been used to obtain confessions of those convicted and executed. Furthermore, even the highest football official cannot have missed the allegations on Saudi officials being involved in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018. Finally, the active involvement of and alleged attacks on civilians launched by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Yemen war can also not be ignored.

In addition to these structural human rights issues spread in the region, a number of these countries have been involved in very recent football-related human rights cases. In January 2019, a British football fan, Ali Ahmad, has been detained for three weeks and suffered torture by UAE security officials for wearing a Qatari football jersey to an Asian Cup match between Qatar and Iraq. In February 2019, Hakeem al-Araibi, a football player from Bahrain, now living as refugee in Australia, has been released from Thai prison after his arrest in November 2018. The Thai authorities acted upon an arrest warrant issued by Bahrain, where Hakeem had been convicted in absentia to 10 years in prison for an incident dating back to November 2012. The official allegations were vandalism of a police station, but there is clear evidence that discharges Hakeem of these allegations. Most likely, he became a target of Bahraini government and football officials that identified and persecuted Bahraini football players that were involved in anti-government protests during the Arab Spring in 2012.


The Mismatch with FIFA’s Standing Human Rights Commitments

This brief overview presents just a fraction of the extremely negative human rights track record of the countries that FIFA is considering as potential co-hosts for the 2022 World Cup. In case one of these countries will indeed host a World Cup match, FIFA risks to throw away all efforts that it carefully put into building up its human rights profile in the past three years. After the inclusion of human rights into its Statutes, FIFA created a Human Rights Advisory Board in March 2017, adopted a human rights policy in May 2017, and launched a complaint mechanism for human rights defenders and media representatives in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Most importantly, in October 2017 FIFA integrated human rights requirements in its bidding requirements for the World Cup following John Ruggie’s recommendation to “set explicit human rights requirements of Local Organising Committees in bidding documents for tournaments and provide guidance on them”.[iv] The revised bidding requirements expect bidders to conduct all bidding and hosting activities in line with internationally recognized human rights.[v] Furthermore, bidders are required to submit a public commitment to respect human rights and a human rights strategy, together with a report on stakeholder engagement in developing the policy.[vi] The new requirements applied for the first time to the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup and while the 2022 World Cup had been awarded before, the new standard forms an integral part of FIFA’s human rights system by now and therefore should be considered in the recent expansion plans.

Interestingly, the feasibility study on the expansion of the 2022 World Cup mentions human rights at several points: in the context of requirements regarding stadiums (p. 32 & 46), as part of requirements for additional infrastructure and sites (p. 46), and as one of the necessary government guarantees to be submitted to FIFA (p.68). Receiving such guarantees from the respective government might not pose a problem. Instead, the real issue at stake is whether FIFA truly cares about its human rights commitments when considering if these guarantees turn out to be nothing but empty words on a piece of paper? FIFA risks failing its commitments by letting any of the proposed countries co-host the World Cup without having done a proper human rights risk assessment.

Despite this risk, the expansion seems to be more likely to happen than not. FIFA President Gianni Infantino appears to be convinced that the expansion can contribute to solving the diplomatic crisis that is ongoing in the region and stated on record that a preliminary survey showed that 90% of the member associations are in favour of the expansion. Indeed, the decision lies in their hands. They make up the members of the FIFA Congress, FIFA’s supreme body for decision-making, and each member association has one vote. While a number of associations and confederations already publicly announced their support of the expansion, there is still hope that other member associations or confederations remind FIFA of its human rights responsibilities and commitments by voting against it.

[i] For an overview of human rights issues linked to these countries, see Human Rights Watch (2019), “World Report 2018”. 

[ii] See for example Human Rights Committee CCPR/C/BHR/CO/1 (2018), “Concluding observations on the initial report of Bahrain”.

[iii] Human Rights Council A/HRC/29/25/Add.1 (2015), “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai – Mission to Oman”, para 20 ff.

[iv] John G. Ruggie (2017), “’For the Game. For the World’ FIFA & Human Rights”, p. 32.

[v] FIFA (2017), “FIFA REGULATIONS for the selection of the venue for the final competition of the 2026 FIFA World Cup™”, Regulation 8.1 (ii).

[vi] Ibid., Regulation 8.2.

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Editor's Note: Marjolaine is a researcher and attorney admitted to the Geneva bar (Switzerland) who specialises in sports and life sciences. Her interests focus on interdisciplinary approaches as a way of designing effective solutions in the field of anti-doping and other science-based domains. Her book “Evidence in Anti-Doping at the Intersection of Science & Law” was published through T.M.C Asser Press / Springer in late 2015. She participates as a co-author on a project hosted by the University of Neuchâtel to produce the first article-by-article legal commentary of the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code. In her practice, she regularly advises international federations and other sports organisations on doping and other regulatory matters, in particular on aspects of scientific evidence, privacy or research regulation. She also has experience assisting clients in arbitration proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport or other sport tribunals.


Since the spectre of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (‘GDPR’) has loomed over the sports sector,[1] a new wind seems to be blowing on anti-doping, with a palpable growing interest for stakes involved in data processing. Nothing that would quite qualify as a wind of change yet, but a gentle breeze of awareness at the very least.

Though the GDPR does mention the fight against doping in sport as a potential matter of public health in its recitals,[2] EU authorities have not gone so far as to create a standalone ground on which anti-doping organisations could rely to legitimise their data processing. Whether or not anti-doping organisations have a basis to process personal data – and specifically sensitive data – as part of their anti-doping activities, thus remains dependent on the peculiarities of each national law. Even anti-doping organisations that are incorporated outside the EU are affected to the extent they process data about athletes in the EU.[3] This includes international sports federations, many of which are organised as private associations under Swiss law. Moreover, the Swiss Data Protection Act (‘DPA’) is currently under review, and the revised legal framework should largely mirror the GDPR, subject to a few Swiss peculiarities. All anti-doping organisations undertake at a minimum to abide by the WADA International Standard for Privacy and the Protection of Personal Information (‘ISPPPI’), which has been adapted with effect to 1 June 2018 and enshrines requirements similar to those of the GDPR. However, the ISPPPI stops short of actually referring to the GDPR and leaves discretion for anti-doping organisations to adapt to other legislative environments.

The purpose of this blog is not to offer a detailed analysis of the requirements that anti-doping organisations must abide by under data protection laws, but to highlight how issues around data processing have come to crystallise key challenges that anti-doping organisations face globally. Some of these challenges have been on the table since the adoption of the first edition of the World Anti-Doping Code (‘WADC’) but are now exposed in the unforgiving light of data protection requirements.


Who is who and who does what?

It is hardly a scoop for those familiar with the World Anti-Doping Program to state that its structures are complex, relying on an intricate network of private entities as well as public (or quasi-public) agencies, each subject to their own applicable laws. The World Anti-Doping Program has always struggled with reconciling its objectives of global harmonisation with the sovereignty and diversity of national laws. National Anti-Doping Organisations (‘NADO’s) operate at the national level; they are in charge of doping issues across all sports in one country and are endowed with more or less extensive enforcement powers depending on their country’s regulatory approach to the sport sector. By contrast, international federations claim exclusive governance over one sport worldwide, uniformly and without regard to national borders but have to do so with the instruments available to private entities based on contractual or similar tools of private autonomy.

Over time, the WADC has been repeatedly updated to strike a balance between the two (national versus international) spheres and avoid positive or negative conflicts of competence. Provisions seek to clarify attributions in areas where international- and national-level competences collide, such as roles in Therapeutic Use Exemption (‘TUE’) management, testing authority, or results management responsibilities.[4] Even as it is, there is no safeguard to prevent disputes from arising about the proper authority to investigate and initiate proceedings for doping.[5]

Data processing activities are not exempted from the difficulties that accompany the complexity of anti-doping. If anything, these difficulties are rather exacerbated by data protection laws. In particular, the GDPR seeks to create a framework within which data subjects can easily recognise when data is being processed about them, by whom and to what aim(s), and whom to turn to in order to exercise their rights. This forces anti-doping organisations to be precise and unambiguous about their respective roles and attributions among themselves and chiefly towards the data subjects, the athletes subject to doping control.

The GDPR draws a distinction between two major categories of entities that process personal data: an entity can be characterised either as a data ‘controller’, or as a data ‘processor’. A controller is defined as an entity which “alone or jointly with others, determines the purposes and means of the processing of personal data”. A processor is an entity “which processes personal data on behalf of” a controller.[6]

The distinction may seem rather straightforward at first sight: the controller has a personal or commercial interest in the data processing and decides which data to collect, from whom, and through what means. At the other end of the spectrum, a ‘typical’ processor receives documented instructions from a controller and merely implements these instructions with no autonomy of decision or an autonomy limited to technical issues and logistics. However, interrelationships are often much more subtle in reality with considerable room for borderline situations: multiple controllers may need to agree on their (joint) controllership of the data while operating alongside entities that may act in part as processors, in part as controllers of their own right for different aspects of the data processing.[7]

In anti-doping, more than half a dozen entities may be involved in a routine doping control activity, between test planning and the outcome of a disciplinary process. All of these will either collect or gain access to athlete data, including sensitive data, as illustrated by the following: an international federation decides to conduct blood testing on an athlete from its registered testing pool but delegates sample collection to the NADO of the country in which the athlete is currently residing. To do so, the NADO has access to the athlete’s whereabouts filings through the ADAMS database, managed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (‘WADA’). The NADO itself carries out sample collection through a private service provider with its dedicated blood control officers and decides to use the opportunity to order, in addition, the collection of urine samples from the athlete. Upon sampling, the athlete is asked to fill in the doping control form in front of the doping control personnel, which includes disclosing several ongoing medication courses in the dedicated box. Samples are then transported, in a de-identified (‘coded’) form, by private courier from the country of collection to the international federation’s usual WADA-accredited laboratory in a different country.

Assuming the laboratory reports an adverse analytical finding in the blood sample, the international federation requests a full documentation package from the laboratory and verifies whether a Therapeutic Use Exemption on the record could be related to the adverse analytical finding. Upon notification of the results and public announcement of the immediate provisional suspension, the athlete requests the analysis of the B sample, thereby de facto lifting the code on the A sample where the laboratory is concerned. The athlete submits a series of explanations regarding the possible causes for the adverse analytical finding, including a report from his treating physician regarding a medical condition that might account for the findings. The international federation may send the laboratory documentation package and athlete explanations to external experts for additional input and then hands over the file to its external anti-doping tribunal members. Most data will at some point have to pass through the ADAMS database and be stored within that database for up to ten years. However, it may also be communicated by other (electronic or physical) means among anti-doping organisations and their service providers and experts.

Once the disciplinary decision is issued, its main elements are publicly disclosed by the international federation on its website, and the decision shared with WADA and any NADO having jurisdiction over the athlete. The NADO further decides to send the negative urine sample for long-term storage and possible reanalysis to the WADA-accredited laboratory that provides its storage facilities.

The above description represents an imaginary but ultimately rather standard situation for anti-doping organisations. It does not seem too far-fetched to identify that the international federation at the very least acts as a controller of the athlete data processed. However, a NADO who receives instructions to collect samples and also decides to collect additional data (and additional biological materials) on its own and for its own purposes, potentially acts as both a processor and controller depending on the data at stake. A number of processors and sub-processors are involved in the process as service providers, while the qualification of external experts may have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. WADA offers the ADAMS database as an IT infrastructure for data storage and sharing for the international federation and NADO but also uses the data to fulfil its own obligations and purposes under the WADC, such as exercising its appeal rights or verifying compliance of the anti-doping organisations with their duties. Arguably, at the very least there will be three controllers of data (international federation, NADO, and WADA) in addition to multiple processors and sub-processors.

Characterising the role of each entity as a ‘controller’ or as a ‘processor’ is far from being of academic interest only. The two types of entities have distinct responsibilities and requirements for lawful processing. Appropriate contractual arrangements need to be set up among the entities involved, and data subjects must be informed of these in a comprehensible manner allowing them to exercise their rights. Controllers have primary responsibility for dealing with data subject requests and responding to supervisory authorities and have a more extensive scope of liability across the entire scope of data processing. By contrast, processors are, in essence, only liable for their own processing activities and merely undertake to support the controllers in their obligations towards data subjects and authorities.[8]

There is one other important difference that carries special significance in the context of anti-doping: a processor who acts under instructions can rely on the processing contract with the controller responsible for the data as a lawful basis for processing.[9] By contrast, if two or more parties qualify as controllers in their own right, each controller needs to secure its individual lawful basis with respect to the data subjects. The requirement of lawful processing is entwined with the discussion around the validity of ‘consent’ to anti-doping regulations.


Lawful basis and problematic character of consent

Processing of personal data under the GDRP requires a lawful basis. As relevant to our topic, three types of legitimising grounds co-exist: i.) grounds rooted in private autonomy (consent or necessity for performance of a contract with the data subject), ii.) grounds relying on public interest or overriding interests of the controller (e.g. pursuing a legal claim), or iii.) a specific basis in Union or national law, e.g. for performance of a substantial public interest or public health task.[10] Not all grounds enter into consideration for every category of data; special categories of data – also known as ‘sensitive’ data under the DPA – have a more limited number of valid processing grounds.[11] Obviously, a major part of data processed as part of doping control qualifies as sensitive data as it relates to health,[12] including the data gathered through analysis of doping control samples or collected as part of TUE applications.

The traditional way for international sports organisations to impose their rules on their ultimate addressees, i.e., the individual athletes, has been through contract, quasi-contractual chains of submission, or other instruments involving a declaration of consent. The validity of consent on the part of those who submit to anti-doping regulations is a recurring matter for debate, in particular as its informed and voluntary character is generally described at best as limited and more frequently as purely illusory. The issue has been scrutinised in particular with respect to submission to proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (‘CAS’),[13] which the WADC imposes as a legal remedy in international doping disputes. While acknowledging the ‘constrained’ nature of the athlete’s consent, the Swiss Supreme Court accepts the validity of arbitration clauses in sports regulations in the name of the needs for swift and competent resolution of sport disputes. It has, however, imposed certain limits on the extent to which an athlete can entrust their fate to the sports resolution system. As decided in the Cañas v. ATP case, an athlete cannot validly waive in advance the right to challenge the CAS award in front of the Supreme Court in disciplinary matters.[14] In Pechstein v. Switzerland, the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) was asked to discuss the status of an arbitration clause in the context of doping proceedings. It reached the same conclusion that the only choice offered to the athlete was either to accept the clause in order to be able to make a living by practising her sport at a professional level or to refuse it and completely give up on practising at such level. As a result of this restriction on the athlete’s professional life, it was not possible to argue that she accepted the clause ‘in a free and unequivocal manner’.[15]

In both cases, the findings were ultimately of little consequence for the sports sector. The Swiss Supreme Court only reviews CAS awards through an extremely narrow lens so that the power to set strategic jurisprudence in sports matters remains with the CAS panels, whether or not athletes retain their rights to challenge the award. Similarly, in the Claudia Pechstein matter, the only shortcoming found in the ruling was the lack of an option for a public hearing in CAS proceedings. Absence of genuine consent has thus been – expressly or implicitly – compensated for by courts through procedural safeguards, in an effort to ensure that athletes still benefit overall from a system of justice broadly compliant with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Data protection issues create a greater challenge here, since the GDPR explicitly requires consent to be ‘freely given’, in addition to being informed.[16] The same is true under the Swiss DPA.[17] The GDPR does not accommodate compensatory mechanisms to account for the ‘fictional’ character of consent in the sports context: consent that is not optional is not free, and consent that is not free is not valid. Importantly, free consent also presupposes that consent can be withdrawn at any time as easily as it was given and without significant detrimental consequences for the data subject.[18]

I will not delve here into how anti-doping organisations can fulfil the requirement of ‘informed consent’, which as per the GDPR requires “intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language”.[19] The template information notices (here and here) proposed by WADA currently in effect inform athletes, in essence, that their data may be processed based on various legal grounds, may be accessed by various entities around the world according to various data protections laws, which may offer them various levels of protection, and that they may have various rights and obligations under these laws. It is questionable whether explanations in this form would satisfy the requirements for informed consent. Still, adequate information appears at least achievable with appropriate and individualised legal drafting supported by a data protection specialist. The question of free consent is a much more delicate one since it is not in the hands of anti-doping organisations to give athletes a genuine choice in this respect.

In spite of the potential financial implications, one could argue that consent is freely given where the athlete can choose at any time to withdraw consent to data processing, with the sole consequence of losing the benefit of the services attached to the ‘contractual’ relationship with their sports authorities, i.e. the right to participate in sports competitions. This would, for example, suppose that an athlete notified of a testing attempt could elect to either submit or instead declare immediate retirement from sport without any further consequences. Under the current rules, however, such withdrawal of consent would trigger disciplinary sanctions, which may include ineligibility or fines depending on the sport, and in any event, will have a significant impact on the athlete’s reputation. The templates proposed by WADA explicitly warn athletes about these consequences, as well as the fact that anti-doping organisations may retain and continue processing their data in spite of any withdrawal (see here and here). In fact, the WADC provides that the results management and disciplinary process may be initiated or may continue in spite of the athlete announcing their retirement from sport.[20]

To this day, one is still awaiting a realistic proposal that would allow consent to anti-doping regulations to be genuinely freely given. Most stakeholders would agree that there is no viable manner of making compliance with anti-doping rules optional for athletes without undermining the very notion of a level playing field.[21] Unlike the relatively benign implications that lack of genuine consent had for the sport dispute resolution system so far, the impossibility of creating the prerequisites for free consent to anti-doping regulations is far more consequential in the data protection context. Indeed, it precludes reliance on consent as a reliable lawful basis that can be used globally by international sports governing bodies to secure the lawfulness of their data processing. This is the case unless courts would be willing to go against the explicit wording of data protection laws and tolerate ‘forced’ consent as a lawful basis in the context of sport.

As the Swiss Federal Council noted in their official communication on the Swiss Sport Act, the questionable validity of athlete consent makes it necessary to create express legal provisions authorising anti-doping organisations to collect and process personal data for anti-doping purposes.[22] Under the GDPR, processing sensitive data relying on an interest of substantial public or public health interest equally requires a legal basis in EU or relevant national law of a member state. Without intervention of national lawmakers to recognise anti-doping as a matter of ‘substantial public interest’ or ‘public health’ interest and identify those entities that are entitled by law to process data together with an appropriate description of the admissible scope and purposes for such processing, sports organisations will continue to rest on shaky ground when it comes to data processing and in particular processing of sensitive data.


Proportionality of treatment

The issue of proportionality is relevant for almost any component of an anti-doping system. It is recognised by CAS panels and courts as an internationally accepted standard,[23] as part of the assessment for deciding whether an encroachment upon individual freedoms is justifiable and justified in any given case. Proportionality is frequently debated in connection with the severity of the disciplinary sanctions set forth in the WADC,[24] but it is also a test that every other aspect of the regulation must stand up to.[25]

An important limb of the proportionality test is the ‘necessity’ of a measure having regard to the rights affected. This aspect was recently addressed by the European Court for Human Rights in the context of French legislation on the whereabouts regime applicable to professional athletes and its compatibility with privacy: “the general‑interest considerations that make them necessary are particularly important and, in the Court’s..

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In the last five years, the Striani case has been the main sword of Damocles hanging over UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations. At the very least, the only real judicial threat they have faced (apart from the relatively harmless challenge mounted in the Galatasaray case at the CAS). Indeed, a Belgian player agent, Daniele Striani, represented by Bosman’s former lawyer Jean-Louis Dupont, attempted, in various fora, to challenge the compatibility of UEFA’s CL&FFP Regulations with EU law. Striani lodged a complaint with the European Commission (which was quickly rejected in October 2014) and initiated a private action for damages before the Brussels Court of First Instance. The latter deemed itself not competent to decide on the matter, but nevertheless accepted to order a provisory stay of the enforcement of the UEFA FFP Regulations pending a preliminary reference to the Court of Justice of the EU (see Ben van Rompuy’s blog on the case here). The CJEU unsurprisingly rejected to enter into the matter, but UEFA and Striani decided to appeal the first instance ruling to the Court of Appeal, which rendered its decision on 11 April. It is unclear at this stage whether Striani will attempt to challenge it at the Belgian Cour de Cassation (Highest Civil Court), however this would entail considerable risks and costs and his lawyers to date have not indicated that they would do so (see here). 

While the ruling of the Court of Appeal does not touch upon the much-discussed question of the compatibility of UEFA’s FFP Regulations with EU law (see our many blogs on the question here, here and here), it remains an interesting decision to discuss broader questions related to the procedural ease in challenging regulatory decisions passed by sports governing bodies (SGBs) based in Switzerland. Competition law constitutes the main legal tool available to sports stakeholders looking to challenge existing regulatory arrangements from the outside (e.g. not going through the internal political systems of the SGBs or the CAS route). Recent cases, such as the ISU decision of the European Commission, the Pechstein case in front of the German courts or the Rule 40 decision of the German competition authority, have demonstrated the potency of competition law to question the legality of the rules and decisions of the SGBs.[1] In this regard, the decision of the Brussels Court of Appeal narrows the range of parties allowed to challenge in European courts the SGBs’ rules and decisions on the basis of competition law.


I.               A Strict Interpretation of Article 5(3) of the Lugano Convention 

Striani, supported by a number of fans based in France and the UK (presumably PSG and Manchester City supporters), was challenging the UEFA FFP rules for their indirect effects. In short, the core claim was that the FFP Regulations, by curtailing the ability of clubs to invest on the transfer market, had the effect of depriving Striani from the chance to earn more money for his services as an intermediary and the fans from a chance to see better players join their favorite team and therefore improve the quality of the team’s performance. Undoubtedly, these effects were not primary objectives of the FFP rules, which were aimed at constraining the ability of clubs to invest at a loss. Moreover, the rules were only constraining clubs qualified to the European competitions. The question from the point of view of private international law, was whether Striani and the fans could rely on Article 5(3) Lugano Convention to sue UEFA in front of the the Belgian courts.[2]

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that in this case it was dealing with an action in liability for a breach of competition law but sided with UEFA in considering that the hypothetical damage suffered by the claimants in Belgium was too indirect for it to be competent. It came to this conclusion after a journey through well-known European private international law judgments, such as Mines de Potasse d’Alsace, Dumez France or Shevill, and other less known (mainly French and Belgian) judgments in cases involving Swiss-based SGBs.[3] In the present case, it noted that « the challenged UEFA Regulation does not prohibit M. Striani and MAD Management […] from exercising the activity of an intermediary in Belgium or abroad, nor does it regulate the conditions in which this activity is to be exercised ».[4] Moreover, the targeted provisions « do not prohibit the relevant clubs from having recourse to agents […] nor do they limit this activity ».[5] In fact, the prejudice alleged by Striani and MAD Management « is only an indirect consequence of the adoption of the challenged UEFA Regulation », as « it is not related directly to the activity of the claimants and does not have direct consequences on this activity in Belgium or abroad ».[6] Thus, the Court decided that jurisdictions of the seat of UEFA (the Swiss courts) are sole competent to hear the matter.

This conclusion is not surprising. It was also the one reached by the first instance court, which however still decided quite surprisingly to send a preliminary reference to the CJEU and to order a stay in the enforcement of the UEFA FFP Regulations (the latter move was condemned by the Court of Appeal). Yet, it carries implications in the context of transnational sports regulation. Indeed, this is a domain in which the consumers (e.g. fans) are heavily impacted by decisions taken by international SGBs located mainly in Switzerland. The regulatory decisions of these bodies have undoubtedly structural effects on the way a particular sport is experienced by the fans. Moreover, due to the monopoly positions of the SGBs over their sports, these decisions are rarely challenged by competitors (such as the International Swimming League). They often bind the fans and determine the quality of the competitions they are watching and are doing so without providing them any type of say in the regulatory process. Sure, fans (or agents) will still be able to sue the SGBs in Swiss courts, but those have proven extremely ‘benevolent’ vis-à-vis the SGBs and are unlikely to apply EU competition law. In short, the Belgium court has consolidated the exclusion of actors indirectly affected by the decisions of the SGBs from European courts. What happens in Switzerland stays in Switzerland…


II.              The irresponsibility of the URBSFA for UEFA’s decisions

The second strategy used by Striani’s lawyers to anchor the dispute in Belgium was their attempt to involve the Belgium football federation, URBSFA, in the case. Indeed, as the URBSFA is seated in Belgium, there is no issue with regard to the competence of the Belgium courts in its regard. However, here the problem arises in connection to the URBSFA’s causal contribution to the adoption and enforcement of the challenged UEFA FFP Regulations. Indeed, the court held that « the fact that URBSFA is a member of UEFA does not turn it into a co-author of the regulations; the reasoning of the claimants ignores the separate legal personality of UEFA ».[7] The claimants were also alleging that the URBSFA was contributing to the enforcement of the FIFA rules, yet the court finds that they are « confusing the licensing role conferred to the national federations […] with the specific rules regarding the financial balance of clubs enshrined in Articles 57 to 63 of the attacked regulations ».[8] In fact, the « federal regulations of the URBSFA do not impose any constraints, or sanctions, with regard to the challenged break-even rules; these are of the sole competence of UEFA. »[9] Hence, the court concludes that no particular wrongful conduct can be attributed to the URBSFA linked to the harm alleged by the claimants.

By doing so, the Court of Appeal holds onto the formalist idea of the separate corporate personalities and brushes over the fact that national federations are at least politically co-responsible for the policies adopted, e.g. they hold the voting power inside the international federations. In this context, invoking the corporate veil might let national federations too easily off the hook, even though it is certainly true that a single national federation does not have a decisive voting power or influence inside an international SGB. Here, there is an interesting parallel with the functioning of the European Union itself, as it seems that decisions taken by UEFA (not unlike the EU’s) are not politically (or in this case legally) attributable to the individual member associations (the famous blame Brussels culture). The idea of a joint action between national and international federations leading to the exercise of collective power might be more suitable to capture the transnational regulatory dynamics at play in sports and could lead to some form of joint liability. In any event, this part of the decision highlights another difficulty in anchoring a case outside of Switzerland, as national federations will often be deemed an inadequate defendant due to their relatively passive role in the adoption and enforcement of the regulations of the international SGBs.


Conclusion

Striani’s crusade against UEFA’s FFP Regulations came to a strange end. While legal scholars and practitioners have been discussing at length whether FFP can be deemed compatible with EU law or not (I’ve spoken in favor of compatibility under certain circumstances, but many others have disputed it), the much-awaited ruling did not even touch upon this question. Indeed, the Brussels Court of Appeal simply denied its competence to hear the matter and sentenced the claimants to pay quite high legal fees to UEFA. By doing so, it did not simply put an end to a case that felt quite artificial and which might have been a pawn in a wider game between UEFA and some powerful clubs, it also closed the door on a variety of stakeholders willing to challenge the rules and decisions of SGBs outside of Switzerland. Indeed, if this interpretation of the Lugano Convention were to stand, it would for example exclude fans from being able to launch liability claims, on their home judicial turf, against international SGBs for the damage inflicted to their clubs.

Besides those directly impacted, in the case of FFP primarily the clubs (would the players be sufficiently directly affected? Maybe, maybe not), those that wish to challenge the rules and decisions of the SGBs are condemned to turn to the Swiss courts, which are rather well-known for their deference to the wide regulatory autonomy of international SGBs. In short, what happens in Switzerland (e.g. the adoption and enforcement of the SGBs’ regulations) is to stay judicially in Switzerland. This will be a reassuring news for the network of Swiss private associations that rule over international sports as it will reduce the risk of facing civil litigation outside of their well-chartered home turf. In fact, it is extremely rare for those directly affected (e.g. the clubs and athletes) to be ready to go to court to challenge them. As evidenced by the case of Bosman or Pechstein, the short-term costs in doing so are disproportionately high (boycott and career-end for the former, bankruptcy for the latter) while the chances of success remain quite limited. Similarly, a football club is unlikely to take the risk of going against UEFA or FIFA, unless it has nothing left to lose (e.g. like SV Wilhelmshaven). In sum, even if I believe UEFA’s FFP rules could be allowed to stand under EU law, this ruling sheltered UEFA from having to deal with this question, at least for the time being.

[1] In general, see B. Van Rompuy, The Role of EU Competition Law in Tackling Abuse of Regulatory Power by Sports Associations, Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law (2015), vol. 22, nr. 2

[2] Article 5(3) Lugano Convention provides that: A person domiciled in a State bound by this Convention may, in another State bound by this Convention, be sued in matters relating to tort, delict or quasi-delict, in the courts for the place where the harmful event occurred or may occur.

[3] See the judgments cited in Cour d’appel Bruxelles, UEFA c. Striani & co, 11 avril 2019, 2015/AR/1282, paras 40 & 41.

[4] « En effet, le Règlement UEFA critiqué n'interdit pas à M. Striani et à MAD Management, qui se présentent comme agent de joueurs de football en Belgique (le premier comme personne physique et la seconde étant la société à travers laquelle le premier exerce son activité), d'exercer cette activité d'agent, en Belgique ou à l'étranger ni ne règle les conditions d'exercice de cette activité. » Ibid, para. 42.

[5] « Par ailleurs, ces dispositions ne font nullement interdiction aux clubs concernés de recourir aux services d'agents, tels les demandeurs originaires, ni ne limitent cette activité. Ibid.

[6] « ll découle de ce qui précède que, sans préjuger de la matérialité du dommage invoqué par M.Striani et MAD Management, ce dommage, à le supposer établi, n'est qu'une suite indirecte du l'adoption du Règlement UEFA querellé. Le Règlement querellé ne concerne pas directement l'activité des demandeurs originaires et n'a pas de conséquence directe sur cette activité, en Belgique ou ailleurs. » Ibid.

[7] « L’URBSFA n'est pas l'auteur des règles d'équilibre financier prévues au Règlement UEFA. Le seul fait que I'URBSFA soit membre de l'UEFA ne la rend pas co-auteur du Règlement; le raisonnement des intimés fait fi de la personnalité juridique distincte de l'UEFA. » Ibid, para. 48.

[8] « Ce faisant, les intimés entretiennent la confusion entre le rôle dévolu aux fédérations nationales pour l'octroi des licences, non critiqué en tant que tel, et les règles particulières concernant l'équilibre financier, prévues aux articles 57 à 63 du Règlement querellé. » Ibid.

[9] « Le Règlement fédéral de l'URBSFA ne comporte dès lors pas d'exigence, ni de sanction, concernant les règles d'équilibre financier querellée; celles-ci sont uniquement du ressort de l'UEFA. » Ibid.

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Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.


1.     Introduction

To many it may seem obvious that athletes in a national championship should only be able to participate if they have the nationality of the relevant state. The Dutch Road Cycling National Championships should have Dutch cyclists, and the German Athletics Championships should have German athletes and so forth. However, in reality, foreign competitors are allowed to participate in many national championships in the EU, and there is a wide discrepancy between the rules of national sport governing bodies on this issue. There is no unified practice when investigating this point by country or by sport, and rules on participation range from a complete ban on foreign competitors to absolutely no mention of foreign athletes.[1] Thus, the question arises: should foreign athletes be able to participate in national sport championships?

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will soon be required to provide an, at least partial, answer to this dilemma as a result of an application for a preliminary ruling.  A German Court has referred three questions to the CJEU on the case TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. (DLV) which in essence ask whether EU citizenship rights and in particular, the requirement of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality, should be applied to non-nationals wishing to participate in an athletics national championship in Germany. In the meantime, the Advocate General (AG), who provides a non-binding opinion to the Court before a decision is delivered, Evgeni Tanchev has delivered an interesting opinion on the case. It addresses the claims from the applicants based on EU citizenship rights and urges the CJEU to instead review the case on the basis of the freedom of establishment.

This blog will dissect the AG’s opinion to assess the main arguments put forward in relation to freedom of establishment and EU citizenship. Furthermore, it will weigh the ramifications this case may have on the boundaries of EU law in relation to sport. To fully appreciate the AG’s opinion, it is necessary to first discuss the intriguing factual and legal background colouring this case. After all, this will not be the first time the CJEU faces thorny issues concerning discrimination on the basis of nationality and sport.

 

2.     Factual Background of TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. (DLV)

The second applicant in this case, Mr. Biffi, is an Italian resident in Germany since 2003. He works professionally as a personal trainer and coach and has a website which advertises his services. He has been a member of the Berlin-based athletics club TopFit (the first applicant) and has competed in athletics competitions including German national championships within the senior category of athletes above the age of 35. In these national competitions, he had his placings recorded and published his results on his website. In 2016, the DLV changed its rules on non-nationals participating in national championships across all age categories without notice or transitional period. The rules were changed to only allow German nationals to compete for the national title while non-nationals could only participate outside classification with the permission of the organisers. As a result, Mr. Biffi was even denied the ability to participate in one of the championships in which he previously participated without raising a brow. The applicants challenged the DLV rule on the basis that it is in contravention to the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of nationality under EU citizenship. 

 

3.     European Sports Law and Nationality Based Discrimination

Generally, sport governing bodies aim to have the maximum autonomy possible to formulate and apply their rules. In the EU, they have attempted and ultimately failed at securing an absolute autonomy.[2] The current relationship between the sport governing bodies and the EU has been described as a ‘conditional autonomy’ where sport governing bodies may exercise their discretion in formulating and applying their rules so long as they do not conflict with EU law.[3] It should be noted that the CJEU has mainly scrutinized rules from sport governing bodies which affect economic interests of the parties in the context of free movement and competition law. Evidently, this relationship has resulted in a struggle between sport governing bodies and the EU over a number of topics including non-discrimination on the basis of nationality.

Traditionally, the CJEU has addressed issues of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality in sports cases from a free movement perspective in ensuring that sport rules do not disrupt the EU’s internal market. For example, when a rule from the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) required that a pacemaker be the same nationality as the cyclist in the UCI Motor-paced World Championships, the CJEU rendered its ruling on the basis of the provisions establishing the free movement of workers and service providers. Moreover, the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) 3 plus 2 rule which allowed football clubs to limit the number of foreign players who could play in a match to three players plus two more players who had been ‘assimilated’ by having played a certain amount of years in the concerned national football association were found in the famous Bosman case to be in contravention of the free movement of workers provisions.

In the present case, the parties have argued the case on the basis of the prohibition on the discrimination of nationality flowing from EU citizenship rights. Based on Article 9 of the Treaty on European Union, all nationals of an EU member state automatically have EU citizenship. However, these rights are only triggered when other more specific rights, such as free movement rights, are not activated first. Put differently, if the facts of a case fall within a free movement right, then the case can only be inspected in light of the relevant free movement provision; hence, EU citizenship rights may only be invoked where free movement rights are not applicable.

Interestingly enough, as the AG points out in his opinion, the facts of this case could also be framed as a restriction to freedom of establishment. In any event, the CJEU has yet to address sport rules which concern non-discrimination on the basis of freedom of establishment or EU citizenship.

So how should the CJEU address this issue? Freedom of establishment or EU citizenship rights?

 

4.     Analysing AG Tanchev’s Opinion: Freedom of Establishment or EU Citizenship Rights?

4.1.Scope of the Freedom of Establishment

Very early on in the opinion, AG Tanchev unambiguously expresses his preference for analysing the present case through a free movement lens.[4] He explains that Mr. Biffi is self-employed as a personal trainer and coach on a continuous and stable manner in Germany which amounts to an economic activity connected to his sporting pursuits.[5] Therefore, AG Tanchev believes the analysis should be pursued under the freedom of establishment provisions. For this view to be endorsed, it is essential that Mr. Biffi’s economic activity is sufficiently connected to his sporting endeavours.

In this context, AG Tanchev recalls the Deliège case which concerned a Judoka, who argued that a national sport governing body’s refusal to select her for an international competition was a violation of her freedom to provide services. The Court in that case had to determine whether she was engaged in an economic activity in order for the fundamental freedom to apply. In doing so, the Court unequivocally states that simply because a sport governing body labels its athlete an amateur, it does not mean that they are automatically disengaged from economic activity, and economic activities in the context of free movement of services should not be interpreted restrictively.[6] Therefore, the Court in the Deliège case focused on the judoka’s sponsorships deals and grants to conclude that she was engaged in economic activities.[7] AG Tanchev, in examining the Deliège case’s relevance, explains that this demonstrates EU law’s flexibility in finding a link between sporting and economic activities, and that even if the DLV’s rules only have an ‘indirect impact’ on Mr. Biffi’s economic activities, it should fall within the scope of the freedom of establishment.[8]

4.2.Restriction on the Freedom of Establishment and Justifications

The opinion then goes on to find that there has been a restriction of Mr. Biffi’s freedom of establishment because the DLV rule puts Mr. Biffi ‘at a disadvantage when compared with German nationals engaged in the provision of athletic training services’ because he is unable ‘to make reference to his achievements in national sporting championships in order to attract business.’ Furthermore, he states that consumers are ‘more likely to be drawn to an athletics coach advertising on-going excellence … in the national athletics championships.’[9] Given that the DLV rule is directly discriminatory, EU law only allows justification under the express derogations enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The DLV would have had a larger window to defend their rules if they were indirectly discriminatory since the CJEU accepts both express derogations and justifications which have been developed by its own case law.

AG Tanchev readily finds that the DLV’s rules fall under the public policy derogation by aiming to ensure that the winner of the national title has a ‘sufficiently strong link’ with the country organising the championship and to ensure that the national selection of athletes for international competitions is not disrupted. It could be argued that these aims have been too easily advanced as public policy objectives. The CJEU has never accepted the former as a derogation or a justification, and concerning the latter, the CJEU has accepted objectives which ensure national representation in international competitions only as justifications. Since justifications developed by the CJEU generally are not applicable to cases of direct discrimination, such as the present case, it can be said that the opinion perhaps too quickly embraces these pursued aims as public policy objectives. This being said, sport already enjoyed a special treatment in the past as the CJEU has been open to consider justifications for directly discriminatory measures in the Bosman case.

4.3.Is the DLV’s measure proportionate?

Assuming that these aims are accepted as express derogations, the DLV measures must then pass proportionality requirements which in EU law require a measure to be suitable for the pursued aim and necessary to achieve those aims. In the sporting context, the CJEU has explained that in order for a sporting rule to be proportionate it must be limited to its proper objective and it must be inherent to the organization of the sport event.[10] AG Tanchev affirms that the measure is disproportionate because the rule disallows Mr. Biffi from competing for the national title and precludes classification in such a competition when for many years he had been allowed to compete and be classified as any other German athlete.[11] Furthermore, given he had this pre-existing right, the DLV’s failure to take any transitional measures or give sufficient notice of this change violates the legitimate expectations of Mr. Biffi who exercised his free movement in reliance of this established regime and infringes the general principle of acquired rights.[12] Thus, it can be inferred that in AG Tanchev’s view, the measure could have been proportionate had there been sufficient transitional measures in place. Such a broad interpretation of proportionality by including the non-national's right to compete for the national title, would greatly restrict the options of a sport governing body wanting to change a rule that could negatively affect the participation of non-nationals in their national competitions.

If this broad approach is not accepted, AG Tanchev contends the measure is still disproportionate since the DLV’s rules potentially exclude non-national participants from competing at all in the national championships. Such a measure could only be legitimate in ‘unusual circumstances.’ In this vein, the opinion suggests less restrictive rules which instead limit the number of non-classified athletes.[13]

Other alternative models have been suggested which are much more likely to pass the proportionality test. One commentator has suggested that non-nationals should be allowed to compete in national championships while perhaps only restricting their ability to actually win the title.[14] If applied to this case, this model would allow Mr. Biffi to participate with classification in the national championships, but if he (or other non-national) were to take the first place, the national title would be given to the highest classified German athlete in the competition. Another model put forward in a recent study suggests that a non-national can only compete in the national championship after having been resident or being member of a local club for a certain period of time. All of these suggestions show that there are a multitude of less restrictive ways to protect the organisation of national championships and the selection process of national athletes for international competitions. An outright ban on participation or only allowing participation outside of classification is remarkably restrictive and has very little chance of passing the necessity requirements under proportionality.

Overall, the argument that this case should be analysed from the freedom of establishment perspective is rather convincing because the economic dimension is clearly present. However, there is still a possibility that the CJEU will follow the line of arguments brought by the applicants based on EU citizenship rights addressed at the end of AG Tanchev’s opinion.

4.4.EU Citizenship Rights

AG Tanchev begins by explaining that even if non-discrimination on the basis of nationality deriving from EU citizenship are applied, the result of the case should be the same because the stated aims of the DLV simply do not meet the proportionality requirements.[15]  However, the opinion goes on to firmly oppose the application of EU citizenship rights in this context.

In its submissions, the Commission had strongly endorsed a view that access to leisure activities should always fall within the scope of EU citizenship rights. AG Tanchev disagrees with such a wide-ranging interpretation because it would be a huge ‘constitutional step’ to give Article 21 TFEU horizontal direct effect, meaning a private party could invoke this provision in a national court against another private party. He maintains that this provision is meant to only have vertical direct effect, where a private party may invoke this provision in a national court against the state. He explains that extending horizontal direct effect to this rather open-ended provision would have a capricious effect that would damage legal certainty because Article 21 TFEU ‘comes into play in the broad and unpredictable range of circumstances’ where applicants are ‘unable to show a link between what is in issue and economic activities’ or ‘fall outside of EU legislation concerning freedom of movement.’[16] On the other hand, one could argue the very purpose of this Article is to provide EU citizens with other means to dispute measures which harm their free movement, and such a restricted interpretation would damage l’effet utile of this provision.   

While it is probably the case that Mr. Biffi’s circumstances fall within the scope of his free movement rights, imagine if he did not have any economic interest, and instead of a coach and personal trainer, he was an accountant or car mechanic. If AG Tanchev’s approach were to be taken in such a case, Mr. Biffi would have absolutely no recourse under EU law to challenge such a discriminatory rule. If Article 18 and 21 TFEU were to be interpreted so restrictively, private monopolistic actors who exercise powers that resemble those of a state (such as many sport governing bodies) could make the exercise of the European citizenship less attractive by limiting the participation of non-nationals in certain leisure activities. The Commission is right in taking a broad approach on this issue, although in the end it found the DLV’s rule to be proportionate, especially since Article 18 and 21 TFEU makes no express reservations against the applicability of these provisions on private parties.[17] A wide interpretation would completely fit the ‘conditional autonomy’ model in which sport rules fall within the scope of EU law, and it is for the sport governing bodies to explain how and why the rule is necessary or ‘inherent’ to the conduct of sports.

 

5.     Conclusion

If the CJEU finds this case to fall under the scope of the freedom of establishment, it is likely the DLV’s rules will fail to be justified or crumble under the proportionality requirements. Likewise, the outcome is likely to be the same in the improbable case that EU citizenship rights are applied. However, it truly would be a ‘constitutional step’, as AG Tanchev asserted, by greatly widening the possibility of using EU citizenship rights to challenge nationality discrimination in even amateur and leisure sport. Moreover, solidifying horizontal direct effect of the EU citizenship rights would have an impact way beyond sport related cases.

Regardless, even if Mr. Biffi’s case is examined from the freedom of establishment, it will be a momentous occasion for the CJEU to further elucidate the boundaries of the application of EU law to sport. In this respect, AG Tanchev’s opinion provides an excellent analysis of the legal issues arising from the free movement perspective and picks up on the most evident detail that all the parties in the case seemed to have glanced over: Mr. Biffi has an economic interest which is tied to his sporting activities. In the long run, the application of EU citizenship rights to sports seems inevitable, but TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi most likely does not provide the CJEU with a golden opportunity to express itself on this matter.


[1] T.M.C. Asser Institute Report, ‘Study on the Equal Treatment of Non-Nationals in Individual Sports Competitions’ (2010).

[2] Case 36-74 B.N.O. Walrave and L.J.N. Koch v Association Union cycliste internationale, Koninklijke Nederlandsche Wielren Unie and Federación Española Ciclismo [1974] ECR 1974 –01405; Case C-415/93 Union royale belge des sociétés de football association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman, Royal club liégeois SA v Jean-Marc Bosman and others and Union des associations européennes de football (UEFA) v Jean-Marc Bosman [1995] ECR I-04921.

[3] Stephen Weatherill, Principles and Practice in EU Sports Law (1st edn, Oxford University Press 2017) 71.

[4] Case C-22/18 TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. [2019] ECLI:EU:C:2019:181, Opinion of AG Tanchev, para 48.

[5] ibid para 55.

[6] Joined Cases C-51/96 and C-191/97 Christelle Deliège v Ligue francophone de judo et disciplines associées ASBL, Ligue belge de judo ASBL, Union européenne de judo [2000] ECR I-02549 para 46.

[7] ibid paras 51-53.

[8] TopFit, Opinion of AG Tanchev (n 4) para 62.

[9] ibid para 70.

[10] Walrave (n 2) para 9; Deliège (n 6) para 64.

[11] TopFit, Opinion of AG Tanchev (n 4) paras 80, 88.

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Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

The Court of Arbitration for Sport bans 12 Russian track and field athletes

On 1 February 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) communicated that it had rendered another 12 decisions in the seemingly endless saga concerning the state-sponsored doping programme in Russia. These first-instance decisions of the CAS involve 12 Russian track and field athletes who were all found guilty of anti-doping rule violations based on the evidence underlying the reports published by professor Richard McLaren and suspended from participating in sports competitions for periods ranging from two to eight years. Arguably the most prominent name that appears on the list of banned athletes is Ivan Ukhov, the 32-year-old high jump champion from the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

The case was brought by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) that sought to convince the arbitrators that the athletes in question had participated in and/or benefited from anabolic steroid doping programmes and benefited from specific protective methods (washout schedules) in the period between the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. The CAS was acting in lieau of the Russian Athletics Federation that remains suspended and thus unable to conduct any disciplinary procedures. The athletes have had the opportunity to appeal the decisions to the CAS Appeals Arbitration Division.

Federal Cartel Office in Germany finds Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter disproportionately restrictive

At the end of February, the German competition authority Bundeskartellamt announced that it had entered into a commitment agreement with the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in which these two organisations had agreed to considerably enhance advertising opportunities for German athletes and their sponsors during the Olympic Games. The respective agreement is a direct consequence of the Bundeskartellamt’s finding that the IOC and the DOSB had abused their dominant position on the market for organising and marketing the Olympic Games by demanding that the athletes refrain from promoting their own sponsors while the Games are ongoing, as well as shortly before and after the Games. This restriction stems from Rule 40(3) of the Olympic Charter under which no competitor who participates in the Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes, unless the IOC Executive Board allows him/her to do so.

As part of fulfilling its obligations under the commitment agreement, the DOSB has relaxed its guidelines on promotional activities of German athletes during the Olympic Games. For its part, the IOC has declared that these new guidelines would take precedence over Rule 40(3) of the Olympic Charter. However, it still remains to be seen whether in response to the conclusions of the German competition authority the IOC will finally change the contentious rule.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights refuses to pronounce itself on Claudia Pechstein’s case

Claudia Pechstein’s challenge against the CAS brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has not yielded the desired result for the German athlete. On 5 February 2019, a Panel of the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR decided that the Grand Chamber would not entertain the case. This means that the judgment handed down by the 3rd Chamber of the ECtHR on 2 October 2018, in which the ECtHR confirmed that except for the lack of publicity of oral hearings the procedures of the CAS are compatible with the right to a fair trial under Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, has now become final and binding. However, the protracted legal battle between the five-time Olympic champion in speed skating and the CAS is not over yet since there is one more challenge against the CAS and its independence pending before the German Constitutional Court. 

 

Sports Law Related Decisions

 

Official Documents and Press Releases 

CAS

FIFA

IOC

UEFA

WADA

Other

 

In the news

Doping

 

Football

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In the past few years, FIFA underwent intense public scrutiny for human rights violations surrounding the organisation of the World Cup 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar. This led to a reform process at FIFA, which involved a number of policy changes, such as:

  • Embracing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • The inclusion of human rights in the FIFA Statutes;
  • Adopting new bidding rules including human rights requirements;
  • And introducing a Human Rights Advisory Board.

To take stock of these changes, the Asser Institute and the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research (NNHRR), are organising a conference on the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and human rights, which will take place at the Asser Institute in The Hague on 8 May 2019.

This one-day conference aims to take a deeper look at FIFA’s impacts on human rights and critically investigate the measures it has adopted to deal with them. Finally, we will also address FIFA’s potential legal responsibilities under a variety of human rights laws/instruments.


Preliminary Programme

9:00 Registration & Coffee

9:45 Welcome by Antoine Duval (Asser Institute) & Daniela Heerdt (Tilburg University)

10:00 Opening Remarks by Andreas Graf (Human Rights Officer, FIFA)

10:30 Panel 1: FIFA & Human Rights: Impacts

  • Zoher Shabbir (University of York) – The correlation between forced evictions and developing nations hosting the FIFA World Cup
  • Roman Kiselyov (European Human Rights Advocacy Centre) - FIFA World Cup as a Pretext for a Crackdown on Human Rights
  • Eleanor Drywood (Liverpool University) - FIFA and children’s rights: theory, methodology and practice 

12:00 Lunch

13:00 Panel 2: FIFA & Human Rights: Policies

  • Lisa Schöddert & Bodo Bützler (University of Cologne) – FIFA’s eigen-constitutionalisation and its limits
  • Gigi Alford (World Players Association) - Power Play: FIFA’s voluntary human rights playbook does not diminish Switzerland’s state power to protect against corporate harms
  • Brendan Schwab (World Players Association) & Craig Foster - FIFA, human rights and the threatened refoulement of Hakeem Al Araibi 

14:30 Break

15:00 Panel 3: FIFA & Human Rights: Responsibilities

  • Daniel Rietiker (ECtHR and University of Lausanne) - The European Court of Human Rights and Football: Current Issues and Potential
  • Jan Lukomski (Łukomski Niklewicz law firm) - FIFA and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights : Obligations, duties and remedies regarding the labour rights         protected under the ICESCR
  • Raquel Regueiro Dubra (Complutense University of Madrid) - Shared international responsibility for human rights violations in global events. The case of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
  • Wojciech Lewandowski (Polish Academy of Sciences/University of Warsaw) - Is Bauer the new Bosman? – The implications of the newest CJEU jurisprudence for FIFA and other sport governing bodies

17:00 Closing Remarks by Mary Harvey (Chief Executive, Centre for Sports and Human Rights)


More information and registration at https://www.asser.nl/education-events/events/?id=3064

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 Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

#Save(d)Hakeem

The plight of Hakeem al-Araibi – the 25-year-old refugee footballer who was arrested last November in Bangkok upon his arrival from Australia on the basis of a red notice issued by Interpol in contravention of its own policies which afford protection to refugees and asylum-seekers – continued throughout the month of January. Bahrain – the country Hakeem al-Araibi fled in 2014 due to a (well-founded) fear of persecution stemming from his previous experience when he was imprisoned and tortured as part of the crackdown on pro-democracy athletes who had protested against the royal family during the Arab spring – maintained a firm stance, demanding that Hakeem be extradited to serve a prison sentence over a conviction for vandalism charges, which was allegedly based on coerced confessions and ignored evidence.

While international sports governing bodies were critised from the very beginning for not using enough leverage with the governments of Bahrain and Thailand to ensure that Hakeem’s human rights are protected, they have gradually added their voice to the intense campaign for Hakeem’s release led by civil society groups. FIFA, for example, has sent a letter directly to the Prime Minister of Thailand, urging the Thai authorities ‘to take the necessary steps to ensure that Mr al-Araibi is allowed to return safely to Australia at the earliest possible moment, in accordance with the relevant international standards’. Yet many activists have found this action insufficient and called for sporting sanctions to be imposed on the national football associations of Bahrain and Thailand.      

When it looked like Hakeem will continue to be detained in Thailand at least until April this year, the news broke that the Thai authorities agreed to release Hakeem due to the fact that for now the Bahraini government had given up on the idea of bringing Hakeem ‘home’ – a moment that was praised as historic for the sport and human rights movement.

Russia avoids further sanctions from WADA despite missing the deadline for handing over doping data from the Moscow laboratory 

WADA has been back in turmoil ever since the new year began as the Russian authorities failed to provide it with access to crucial doping data from the former Moscow laboratory within the required deadline which expired on 31 December 2018, insisting that the equipment WADA intended to use for the data extraction was not certified under Russian law. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency thus failed to meet one of the two conditions under which its three-year suspension was controversially lifted in September 2018. The missed deadline sparked outrage among many athletes and national anti-doping organisations, who blamed WADA for not applying enough muscle against the Russian authorities.

Following the expiry of the respective deadline, it appeared that further sanctions could be imposed on the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, but such an option was on the table only until WADA finally managed to access the Moscow laboratory and retrieve the doping data on 17 January 2019. Shortly thereafter, WADA President Sir Craig Reedie hailed the progress as a major breakthrough for clean sport and members of the WADA Executive Committee agreed that no further sanctions were needed despite the missed deadline. However, doubts remain as to whether the data have not been manipulated. Before WADA delivers on its promise and builds strong cases against the athletes who doped – to be handled by international sports federations – it first needs to do its homework and verify whether the retrieved data are indeed genuine.  

British track cyclist Jessica Varnish not an employee according to UK employment tribunal

On 16 January 2019, an employment tribunal in Manchester rendered a judgment with wider implications for athletes and sports governing bodies in the United Kingdom, ruling that the female track cyclist Jessica Varnish was neither an employee nor a worker of the national governing body British Cycling and the funding agency UK Sport. The 28-year-old multiple medal winner from the world and European championships takes part in professional sport as an independent contractor but sought to establish before the tribunal that she was in fact an employee of the two organisations. This would enable her to sue either organisation for unfair dismissal as she was dropped from the British cycling squad for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and her funding agreement was not renewed, allegedly in response to her critical remarks about some of the previous coaching decisions.

The tribunal eventually dismissed her challenge, concluding that ‘she was not personally performing work provided by the respondent – rather she was personally performing a commitment to train in accordance with the individual rider agreement in the hope of achieving success at international competitions’. Despite the outcome of the dispute, Jessica Varnish has insisted that her legal challenge contributed to a positive change in the structure, policies and personnel of British Cycling and UK Sport, while both organisations have communicated they had already taken action to strengthen the duty of care and welfare provided to athletes.  

 

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  • Jack Anderson

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