On December 16, 2020, the General Court partially annulled the Commission’s decision in the International Skating Union’s Eligibility rules case. The General Court upheld the Commission’s finding that the International Skating Union’s (“ISU”) eligibility rules (“Eligibility Rules”), which prescribed severe penalties on participants of third-party events not authorized by the ISU, were in breach of Article 101 TFEU. However, the General Court disagreed with the Commission’s conclusion that the exclusive jurisdiction of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”), in relation to disputes regarding the Eligibility Rules and third-party event authorization, “reinforced” the restrictive effects of the Eligibility Rules.
Sports organizations’ powers to restrict participation in third-party events. The General Court’s judgment reaffirms the position that sports organizations may restrict participation in third-party events to the extent such a restriction is objective, transparent, non-discriminatory, proportionate, and inherent in the pursuit of the sports organization’s legitimate objectives.
According to the General Court, sports organizations may find themselves in a conflict of interests where they organize events themselves and also have the power to authorize events organized by third parties. Pursuant to the Meca- Medina case law, a sports federation may impose restrictions that are limited to what is necessary to pursue sport-specific legitimate objectives. On this basis, the General Court concluded that an ex-ante system for authorizing third party events may be justified if it is pursuing legitimate objectives. For example, ensuring that sporting competitions comply with common standards or protecting the federation’s economic interests are legitimate objectives that may justify an ex ante authorization system.
The General Court upheld the Commission’s conclusion that in this particular case the ISU breached Article 101 TFEU because it did not meet the Meca-Medina standard, primarily for two reasons:
- The ISU Eligibility Rules for pre-authorizing third-party competitions did not have “clearly defined, transparent, non-discriminatory and reviewable” criteria, and went beyond what was necessary to protect the integrity of speed skating from the risks associated with betting or to ensure that sporting competitions comply with common standards. In particular, the ISU rules granted ISU-broad discretion to refuse the authorization of third-party events, and did not precisely set out the conditions for identifying different categories of infringements by speed skaters that participated in non-authorized third-party
- The ISU Eligibility Rules provided disproportionate sanctions on athletes for participating in non-authorized competitions (lifetime ban or disqualification for 5–10 years, where the average length of a speed skater’s career is just eight years). These penalties were capable of dissuading athletes from participating in unauthorized
- Approval of CAS exclusive jurisdiction. The General Court disagreed with the Commission’s conclusion that the exclusive jurisdiction of the CAS, on disputes regarding the Eligibility Rules and third-party event authorization, “reinforced” the restrictive effects of the Eligibility Rules. Referring to the European Court of Human Rights 2018 judgment in Pechstein, the General Court recognized the benefits of the CAS (particularly the capability of adjudicating quickly and economically, and facilitating a certain procedural uniformity), while it rejected the Commission’s concerns that the CAS process could enable sports organizations to skirt the application of EU competition rules. Ultimately, the General Court annulled the Commission’s decision to oblige the ISU to offer an alternative dispute resolution mechanism to the CAS.
 International Skating Union v. Commission (Case T-93/18) EU:T:2020:610 (“ISU v. Commission”), paras. 179–181.
 Ibid., para. 120.
 David Meca-Medina and Igor Majcen v. Commission (Case C-519/04 P), ECR 2006 I-06991.
 ISU v. Commission, para. 108.
 Ibid., para. 88.
 Ibid., paras. 99–111.
 Ibid., paras. 163, and 180.
 Pechstein v. Switzerland, Applications nos. 40575/10 and 67474/10, ECtHR judgment of October 2, 2018, CE:ECHR:2018:1002JUD004057510, para. 98.