Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

The Specificity of Sport - Comparing the Case-Law of the European Court of Justice and of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Part 2 - By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar.

1. EU law and the CAS case-law

Bearing in mind these questions, it is possible to affirm that under EU law, the specificity of sport

i) refers to the inherent characteristics of sport that set it apart from other economic and social activities and which have to be taken into account in assessing the compatibility of sporting rules with EU law; and

ii) under EU law these inherent characteristics of sport must be  considered on a case by case  basis, per the Wouters test as developed by the ECJ in the Meca Medina ruling.

Both aspects can be found in the CAS case-law too, although the CAS case-law shows some remarkable differences and peculiarities. From a general point of view, the application of the principle of specificity of sport in the CAS case-law represents an aspect of the more general issue related to the application of EU law by the CAS. However, the purpose of this paper is not to fully examine if and to what extent the CAS arbitrators apply EU law rules on free movement and competition; rather, the aim is to analyse the way the CAS deals with the concept of the specificity of sport, highlighting similarities and differences compared to the ECJ.

Taking for granted that ‘a CAS panel is not only allowed, but also obliged to deal with the issues involving the application of [EU] law’,[1] as far as the compatibility of sporting rules with EU law is concerned the CAS case-law shows different degrees of engagement. For instance, in the ENIC award concerning the so-called UEFA integrity rule, the CAS panel went through a complete competition-law analysis in perfect harmony with the Wouters et al. ruling by the ECJ.[2] On the contrary, in the above-quoted Mutu case, the issue of compatibility of the FIFA’s transfer regulations with EU competition law was analysed in a rather simple way, merely stating that the FIFA rules at stake were not anti-competitive under EU competition law without giving any reason to support this conclusion. More recently, in the Galatasaray and Milan A.C. awards, concerning the UEFA’s financial fair-play regulations, the CAS  applied a detailed analysis of EU competition law. However, in both cases, according to the CAS the proportionate character of sanctions listed in the UEFA’s financial fair-play regulations cannot affect the evaluation of the legitimacy of these regulations under Art. 101 TFEU. This conclusion represents a clear breaking point with respect to the ECJ case-law, according to which the evaluation of the restrictive effects of a rule necessarily presupposes the analysis of the proportionate character of the sanction imposed in the event of a violation of that rule as well.[3]   In regard to EU free movement, the CAS case-law tends to be less analytical in terms of the principle of proportionality. For instance, in the RFC Seraing award  which concerned both EU free movement and competition law, the CAS panel mainly focused on the legitimate objectives of the contested rule (FIFA’s ban on Third-Party Ownership – TPO), merely affirming that the restrictive measures under EU free movement were justified and inherent in the pursuit of those objectives.More...

The Specificity of Sport - Comparing the Case-Law of the European Court of Justice and of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Part 1 - By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar.*


1. Introduction.

The so-called specificity of sport represents one of the most debated, if not the most debated, but still undefined issue under European Union (EU) law. A noteworthy peculiarity is that the specificity of sport is frequently mentioned in several legislative and political documents issued by EU institutions, however it is not expressly referred to in any judgment by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).Conversely, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) case-law on Art. 17 of FIFA Regulations on status and transfer of players (RSTP) has repeatedly and expressly referred to the specificity of sport.[1] Apparently, the concept of specificity of sport has different meanings and purposes in the ECJ and CAS jurisprudence. In this blog (divided in two parts), I will try to analyse those two different meanings and to what extent the CAS case-law is consistent with the concept of specificity of sport as elaborated under EU law. More...

SFT rejects Semenya appeal: nothing changes - By Andy Brown

Editor's note: Andy Brown is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the governance of sport for over 15 years. He is the editor of The Sports Integrity Initiative where this blog appeared first.

For the last three days, I have been struggling with what to write regarding the Swiss Federal Tribunal’s (SFT) Decision to dismiss a challenge from Caster Semenya and Athletics South Africa (ASA) against the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) Decision to dismiss a challenge to the Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), otherwise known as the DSD Regulations. From reading World Athletics’ statement welcoming the ruling, one could be forgiven for thinking that it had won a major trial. Sports journalists, accustomed to covering events now curtailed by Covid-19, focus on the fact that Semenya has ‘lost’ her case against the DSD Regulations. Neither assertion is strictly accurate.

The SFT’s powers to review the CAS’s ruling are severely limited. It can only consider whether the CAS Decision violates ‘widely recognised principles of public order’ on Swiss public policy grounds. The SFT has only reversed a decision based on a a violation of Swiss public policy once in 30 years.

The SFT didn’t reconsider the evidence put forward to the CAS. ‘For there to be incompatibility with public policy, it is not enough that the evidence has been poorly assessed, that a finding of fact is manifestly false or that a rule of law has been clearly violated’, its Decision reads. ‘The only question to be resolved is in fact whether or not the verdict of the CAS renders the referred award incompatible with substantive public policy’. 

There were questions about whether the appeal from Semenya and ASA qualified to be reviewed by the SFT in the first place. World Athletics is a private organisation headquartered in Monaco, and the SFT was troubled as to whether such a complaint brought by a South African athlete against an overseas private organisation is capable of violating Swiss public policy.

‘It is doubtful whether the prohibition of discriminatory measures falls within the scope of the restrictive concept of public order when the discrimination is committed by a private person and occurs in relations between individuals’, the Decision quotes from its pervious 29 July 2019 Decision, which refused the ASA’s request to provisionally suspend the application of the DSD Regulations. ‘In any event, there is no need to examine this question further here since […] the award under appeal does not in any way establish discrimination which would be contrary to public order’

The SFT ruled that the CAS was correct to uphold conditions of participation for 46 XY DSD athletes in order to guarantee fair competition for certain disciplines in female athletics. In doing so, the SFT was ruling on whether the decision taken by the CAS violates public policy, based only on the complaints brought forward by Semenya and ASA. 

Semenya and the ASA had challenged the CAS Decision based around the idea that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory. The CAS held that they are discriminatory, but agreed with the IAAF (as World Athletics was then named) that such discrimination was necessary to protect its female category. The SFT ruled that even if the discriminatory rules of a private organisation such as the IAAF were considered able to pose a threat to public order, Semenya and the ASA had failed to demonstrate that the CAS Decision was so egregious that it posed such a threat.

‘Caster Semenya essentially alleges a violation of the prohibition of discrimination’, reads the Swiss Federal Supreme Court statement. ‘The CAS has issued a binding decision based on the unanimous opinion of the experts who were consulted that testosterone is the main factor for the different performance levels of the sexes in athletics; according to the CAS, women with the “46 XY DSD” gene variant have a testosterone level comparable to men, which gives them an insurmountable competitive advantage and enables them to beat female athletes without the “46 XY DSD” variant. Based on these findings, the CAS decision cannot be challenged. Fairness in sport is a legitimate concern and forms a central principle of sporting competition. It is one of the pillars on which competition is based. The European Court of Human Rights also attaches particular importance to the aspect of fair competition. In addition to this significant public interest, the CAS rightly considered the other relevant interests, namely the private interests of the female athletes running in the “women” category.’

Such strong support for the principle behind its DSD Regulations was rightly welcomed by World Athletics. Its statement asserted that the SFT ‘acknowledged that innate characteristics can distort the fairness of competitions’. I would argue that the SFT ruling didn’t do this, but rather found that a CAS Decision asserting this didn’t violate Swiss public policy. Semantics, perhaps.

Likewise, when World Athletics quotes the SFT Decision as confirming that ‘It is above all up to the sports federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is likely to distort competition and, if necessary, to introduce legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs’, it is paraphrasing two texts quoted in the SFT Decision. The first is ‘La qualification juridique des rules autonomes des organizations sportive’ by Jérôme Jaquier, 2004. ‘Inborn characteristics specific to athletes in a particular group can also distort the fairness of competition’, the SFT Decision quotes from Jaquier. ‘When they enact regulations, the objective of sports federations is to ensure fair and equitable competition’.

The context of the second quote, from ‘Sportrecht – Berücksichtigung der Interessen des Sports in der Rechtsordnung’ by Martin Kaiser, 2011, is even more interesting. It is preceded with a statement from the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which reads: ‘It is not for the Federal Court to make, abstractly, comparisons between the disciplines to assess whether a particular athlete has an advantage that makes sporting competition meaningless’

‘It is above all for the sporting federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is liable to distort competition’, the SFT Decision quotes from Kaiser. ‘And, if so, to establish legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs’. 

Again, such details might be considered as semantics. But – I would argue – important semantics. Reading the media maelstrom that has resulted from the SFT Decision, one could be forgiven for assuming that Semenya has lost her case, and has no chance of ever defending her 800m title. However, a statement issued by her lawyers reveals that she intends to challenge the ruling in European and domestic courts.

“I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am”, the statement continues. “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history. I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.” More...

The Semenya Decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal: Human Rights on the Bench - By Faraz Shahlaei

Editor's note: Faraz Shahlaei is a JSD Candidate at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. His research and teaching interests are public international law, international sports law, international human rights and dispute resolution.


The issue of international human rights was a central contention in Caster Semenya case ever since the start of her legal battle against the regulations of the IAAF. However, the human rights arguments were poorly considered in the two proceedings related to this case. To put it in perspective, it is like having a key player nailed to the bench throughout the whole game; no coach ever tried to give it a chance while it had the potential to be the game changer for all parties.

In 2019, the Human Rights Council, the inter-governmental human rights body of the UN, expressed concern over issues of discrimination in sports in particular regarding IAAF female classification regulations. In June 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the “Intersection of Race and Gender Discrimination in Sport”. The report draws a detailed picture of how human rights in the Semenya case have been violated and also elaborates on the inherent problem of addressing human rights issues in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms favored by the sport governing bodies. However, despite an in-depth discussion of Caster Semenya’s case at both the CAS and then the SFT, the question of human rights, a key concern and a fundamental pillar of the case, hasn’t been adequately answered yet! More...

The SFT’s Semenya Decision under European human rights standards: Conflicting considerations and why a recourse could be successful at Strasbourg - By Kevin Gerenni

Editor's note: Kevin Gerenni is Assistant Professor in Public International Law (Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Buenos Aires) and LLM Candidate 2021 in Public International Law at the London School of Economics.

Even though the decision rendered by the SFT in the Semenya Case was foreseeable, the Tribunal did put forward some concerning reasoning in terms of public policy (“ordre public”) and human rights. In case Semenya decides to challenge the Swiss state before the ECtHR, one can expect the case to shake some grounds at the ECtHR, which would be faced with the question of the application to sport not of fair trial guarantees (as in Mutu & Pechstein) but of substantial human rights provisions such as the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex (Article 14 ECHR) and the right to private life (Article 8 ECHR).

Under Swiss law, the reasons that may lead to the annulment of an arbitral award are enumerated in art. 190 of the Swiss Private International Law Act (PILA). Semenya’s strongest case relied on art. 190(2)(e): the award’s incompatibility with public policy. Naturally, this point concentrated most of the SFT’s attention. In order to analyze the compatibility of the CAS award with Swiss public policy, the SFT focused on three main potential breaches of human rights: prohibition of discrimination, personality rights, and human dignity. In doing so, it put forward certain observations that differ with European human rights standards and the ECtHR’s jurisprudence. The purpose of this short article is to analyze those discrepancies and, consequently, Semenya’s prospects of success before the Strasbourg Tribunal.More...

Selected procedural issues –and questions– arising out the Caster Semenya Judgment of the Swiss Federal Tribunal - By Despina Mavromati

Editor's note: Dr Despina Mavromati is an attorney specializing in international sports law and arbitration (Sportlegis Lausanne) and a UEFA Appeals Body Member. She teaches sports arbitration and sports contracts at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland


As the title indicates, this short note only deals with selected procedural issues and questions arising out of the very lengthy Semenya Judgment. In a nutshell, the SFT dismissed Semenya’s appeal to set aside the CAS Award, which had denied the request of Caster Semenya (Semenya, the Athlete) to declare unlawful the Differences of Sex Development (DSD) Regulations of World Athletics (formerly IAAF).[1]

At the outset, it has to be reminded that the CAS Award dealt with the merits of the Semenya case in a final and binding way by rendering an arbitral award according to Article R59 of the CAS Code (and Article 190 of the Swiss Private International Law Act – PILA). Therefore, the SFT did not act as an appellate court but rather as a cassatory court, entitled to review only whether the exhaustively enumerated grounds for annulment set out in Article 190 (2) PILA were met (and provided that they were properly invoked and substantiated in the motion to set aside said award).More...

Caster Semenya Case Exposes Design Flaws in International Sports Governance - By Roger Pielke Jr.

Editor's note: Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder


The decision this week by the Swiss Federal Tribunal not to revisit the arbitral decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the case of Caster Semenya was not unexpected, but it does help to expose a major design flaw in international sports governance. Specifically, the institutions that collectively comprise, create and enforce “sports law” appear incapable of addressing flawed science and violations of basic principles of medical ethics.

While different people will have different, and legitimate, views on how male-female competition classifications might be regulated, the issues highlighted involving science and ethics are not subjective, and are empirically undeniable. In normal systems of jurisprudence, procedures are in place to right such wrongs, but in sports governance processes in place prevent such course corrections. And that is a problem.

The empirical flaws in the science underpinning the IAAF (now World Athletics) Semenya regulations are by now well understood, and have been accepted by WA in print and before CAS (I was an expert witness for Semenya, and was present when IAAF accepted responsibility for the flawed research). You can read all the details here and in the CAS Semenya decision. I won’t rehash the flawed science here, but the errors are fatal to the research and obvious to see.

One key part of the comprehensive institutional failures here is that the journal which originally published the flawed IAAF research (the British Journal of Sports Medicine, BJSM) has, inexplicably, acted to protect that work from scrutiny, correction and retraction. Normally in the scientific community, when errors of this magnitude are found, the research is retracted. In this case, the BJSM refused to retract the paper, to require its authors to share their data or to publish a critique of the IAAF analysis. Instead, upon learning of the major errors, the BJSM published a rushed, non-peer reviewed letter by IAAF seeking to cover-up the errors. All of this is non-standard, and a scandal in its own right.

The violation of basic principles of medical ethics required by the implementation of the WA Semenya regulations is also not contested. Both WA and the IOC have claimed to uphold the World Medical Association’s Helsinki Declaration on medical and research ethics. Yet, the WMA has openly criticized the WA regulations as unethical and asked doctors not to implement them. In response, WA has stated that it will help athletes who wish to follow the regulations to identify doctors willing to ignore medical ethics guidelines.

Flawed science and ethical violations are obviously issues that go far beyond the case of Caster Semenya, and far beyond sport. In any normal system of jurisprudence such issues would prove readily fatal to regulatory action, either in the first instance of proposed implementation or via review and reconsideration.

Sport governance lacks such processes. At CAS, the panel claimed that matters of scientific integrity and medical ethics were outside their remit. The SFT is allowed to reconsider a CAS decision only on narrow procedural grounds, and thus also cannot consider matters of scientific integrity or medical ethics. So far then, the flaws in the WA regulations – sitting in plain sight and obvious to anyone who looks, have not been correctable.

This leaves the world of sport governance in a compromised position. Some may look past the scientific and ethical issues here, perhaps judging that barring Semenya from sport is far more important that correcting such wrongs. 

Regardless of one’s views on sex and gender classification in sport, the WA regulations and the processes that produced and have challenged them reveal that sports governance has not yet entered the 21st century. Science and ethics matter, and they should matter in sport jurisprudence as well.  It is time to correct this basic design flaw in international sport governance.

Caster Semenya at the SFT – in 10 points - By Jack Anderson

Editor's note: Jack Anderson is Professor and Director of Sports Law Studies at the University of Melbourne


1.     Caster Semenya appealed to the Swiss Federal Court (SFT) arguing that World Athletics’ regulations violated human rights principles relating to gender discrimination and human dignity. The Swiss Federal Tribunal (as at CAS) held that World Athletics’ regulations may prima facie breach such human rights principles but were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to maintain fairness in women's athletics;

2.     Although in part addressed at the SFT, expect further legal argument on this in the domestic courts of South Africa or at the ECtHR, and in the following ways:

  • Necessity - is the athletic advantage that Caster Semenya has of such a scientifically-measurable extent that it is necessary for World Athletics to intervene in such an invasive manner? In a broader ethical sense, is the incidence of what the World Athletics’ regulations call “difference of sex development” of such prevalence in the general population, and specifically in middle-distance athletics, that, by way of the principle of “sporting beneficence”, intervention is justified. Or, in contrast, is the incidence of DSD not at a level which justifies a departure from the ethical principle of primum non nocere – first, do no harm?
  • Reasonableness - if World Athletics’ regulations are necessary, is the manner of implementation reasonable and in line with the principle of human and bodily integrity? In answering such a question, the focus must be on the fact that in order to continue to compete in her favourite events (such as the 800 metres) Caster Semenya will have to lower her testosterone level through medication;
  • Proportionate - if World Athletics’ regulations are necessary and reasonable is the manner of implementation proportionate? In answering such a question, the focus must be on whether the regulations disproportionately discriminate against a certain, limited group of athletes in a certain, limited number of events and in a certain, limited manner.More...

Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold: Dissecting the Swiss Federal Tribunal’s Semenya Decision - By Marjolaine Viret

Editor's note: Marjolaine is a researcher and attorney admitted to the Geneva bar (Switzerland) who specialises in sports and life sciences.


On 25 August 2020, the Swiss Supreme Court (Swiss Federal Tribunal, SFT) rendered one of its most eagerly awaited decisions of 2020, in the matter of Caster Semenya versus World Athletics (formerly and as referenced in the decision: IAAF) following an award of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In short, the issue at stake before the CAS was the validity of the World Athletics eligibility rules for Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD Regulation). After the CAS upheld their validity in an award of 30 April 2019, Caster Semenya and the South African Athletics Federation (jointly: the appellants) filed an application to set aside the award before the Swiss Supreme Court.[1] The SFT decision, which rejects the application, was made public along with a press release on 8 September 2020.

There is no doubt that we can expect contrasted reactions to the decision. Whatever one’s opinion, however, the official press release in English does not do justice to the 28-page long decision in French and the judges’ reasoning. The goal of this short article is therefore primarily to highlight some key extracts of the SFT decision and some features of the case that will be relevant in its further assessment by scholars and the media.[2]

It is apparent from the decision that the SFT was very aware that its decision was going to be scrutinised by an international audience, part of whom may not be familiar with the mechanics of the legal regime applicable to setting aside an international arbitration award in Switzerland.

Thus, the decision includes long introductory statements regarding the status of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and the role of the Swiss Federal Tribunal in reviewing award issued by panels in international arbitration proceedings. The SFT also referred extensively throughout its decision to jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), rendered in cases related to international sport and the CAS. More...

New Transnational Sports Law Articles Released on SSRN - Antoine Duval

I have just released on SSRN four of my most recent articles on Lex Sportiva/Transnational Sports Law. The articles are available open access in their final draft forms, the final published version might differ slightly depending on the feedback of the editors. If you wish to cite those articles I (obviously) recommend using the published version.

I hope they will trigger your attention and I look forward to any feedback you may have!


Abstract: This chapter focuses on the emergence of a transnational sports law, also known as lex sportiva, ruling international sports. In the transnational law literature, the lex sportiva is often referred to as a key example or case study, but rarely studied in practice. Yet, it constitutes an important playground for transnational legal research and practice, and this chapter aims to show why. The focus of the chapter will first be on the rules of the lex sportiva. Law, even in its transnational form, is still very much connected to written rules against which a specific behaviour or action is measured as legal or illegal. As will be shown, this is also true of the lex sportiva, which is structured around an ensemble of rules produced through a variety of law-making procedures located within different institutions. The second section of this chapter will aim to look beyond the lex sportiva in books to narrate the lex sportiva in action. It asks, what are the institutional mechanisms used to concretize the lex sportiva in a particular context? The aim will be to go beyond the rules in order to identify the processes and institutions making the lex sportiva in its daily practice. Finally, the enmeshment of the lex sportiva with state-based laws and institutions is highlighted. While the lex sportiva is often presented as an autonomous transnational legal construct detached from territorialized legal and political contexts, it is shown that in practice it operates in intimate connection with them. Hence, its transnational operation is much less characterized by full autonomy than assemblage.

Abstract: This chapter aims to show that the work of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (‘CAS’), which is often identified as the institutional centre of the lex sportiva, can be understood as that of a seamstress weaving a plurality of legal inputs into authoritative awards. In other words, the CAS panels are assembling legal material to produce (almost) final decisions that, alongside the administrative practices of sports governing bodies (‘SGBs’), govern international sports. It is argued that, instead of purity and autonomy, the CAS’ judicial practice is best characterised by assemblage and hybridity. This argument will be supported by an empirical study of the use of different legal materials, in particular pertaining to Swiss law, EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’), within the case law of the CAS. The chapter is a first attempt at looking at the hermeneutic practice of the CAS from the perspective of a transnational legal pluralism that goes beyond the identification of a plurality of autonomous orders to turn its sights towards the enmeshment and entanglement characterising contemporary legal practice.

Abstract: Has the time come for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to go public? This article argues that after the Pechstein decision of the European Court of Human Rights, CAS appeal arbitration must be understood as forced arbitration and therefore must fully comply with the due process guarantees enshrined in Article 6(1) ECHR. In particular, this entails a strong duty of transparency with regard to the hearings at the CAS and the publication of its awards. This duty is of particular importance since the rationale for supporting the validity of CAS arbitration, if not grounded in the consent of the parties, must be traced back to the public interest in providing for the equality before the (sports) law of international athletes. Thus, the legitimacy and existence of the CAS is linked to its public function, which ought to be matched with the procedural strings usually attached to judicial institutions. In short, if it is to avoid lengthy and costly challenges to its awards, going public is an urgent necessity for the CAS.

Abstract: In 1998 the FIFA welcomed the Palestinian Football Association as part of its members - allegedly, as an attempt by then FIFA President, the Brazilian João Havelange, to showcase football as an instrument of peace between Israeli and Palestinians. Ironically, almost 20 years after Palestine’s anointment into the FIFA family, instead of peace it is the conflict between Israeli and Palestinians that moved to FIFA. In recent years the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and the Israeli Football Association (IFA) have been at loggerheads inside FIFA over the fate - I will refer to it as the transnational legality – of five (and then six) football clubs affiliated to the IFA which are physically located in the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). This chapter chronicles the legal intricacies of this conflict, which will serve as a backdrop to discuss arguments raised regarding the legality of business activities of corporations connected to the Israeli settlements. Indeed, as will be shown in the first part of this chapter, the discussion on the legality of economic activities in the OPT has recently taken a business and human rights turn involving systematic targeting of corporations by activists. Interestingly, we will see that this business and human rights turn also played a role in the conflict between the IFA and the PFA. This case study is therefore an opportunity to examine how the strategy of naming and shaming private corporations, and in our case not-for-profit associations, for their direct or indirect business involvement in the settlements has fared. It is also an occasion to critically assess the strength of the human rights ‘punch’ added to the lex sportiva, by the UNGPs.

Asser International Sports Law Blog | From Lord of the Rings to Lord of the Drinks – A legal take on the downfall of Yuri van Gelder at the Rio Olympics. By Guido Hahn (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

From Lord of the Rings to Lord of the Drinks – A legal take on the downfall of Yuri van Gelder at the Rio Olympics. By Guido Hahn (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Editor’s note: Guido graduated cum laude from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He teaches law at the Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. He specializes in sports law and provides legal advice for the professional sports sector.


This blog is a commentary on a recent case that hit like a bombshell in the Netherlands (and beyond) during the recent Olympic Games in Rio. The case concerns a Dutch athlete, Yuri van Gelder, who reached the Olympic finals in his sport, got sent home by ‘his’ NOC (NOC*NSF) after a night out in Rio and launched legal proceedings in front of a Dutch court to claim back his place in the finals. This commentary will attempt to explain the Dutch ruling and evaluate whether a different legal route would have been possible and preferable.

Yuri van Gelder is a Dutch gymnast, who is specialized in the rings. He became internationally known as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ after winning the gold medal at the World Championship in Melbourne in November 2005. After some setbacks in his career, he was not able to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In 2009, during the Dutch Championships he was tested positive on the use of cocaine. He admitted that he had a drug problem and had been using cocaine for some years. He was suspended for a year by the Dutch Gymnastics Federation (KNGU), excluded from the 2012 London Olympics under the regulations of the IOC and even lost his job in the military. After winning the gold medal at a World league game in Gent on his comeback in 2010, he was taken off the team for the World Championships by the KNGU, claiming that he had used cocaine again.

In October 2011 the CAS found the IOC-rule that excluded athletes, who had been suspended for six months or longer, from future Olympic Games to be invalid and unenforceable. Van Gelder was therefore allowed to participate at the 2012 London Olympics, but again was not able to qualify, after failing to meet the required score at the World Championship in Tokyo at the end of 2011. From that moment on, the athlete decided to fully focus on the 2016 Rio Olympics, for which he eventually qualified. Like all other Dutch athletes who qualified and had been selected for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Van Gelder had to sign a so called ‘Athlete Agreement’ with NOC*NSF, which encapsulates the period of preparation before as well as the duration of the Games. At 33 years of age, these Olympics were his last chance to finally win that Olympic medal he so anxiously craved for.

Sent home from the Olympics

On Saturday 6 August in Rio, Van Gelder qualified for the individual finals on the rings, which were to take place nine days later, on 15 August. That same Saturday night he left the Olympic village and came back somewhere around 5 am. On Sunday he stayed in bed until approximately 3 pm, thereby missing a scheduled training session with the team. On Monday 8 August, the NOC*NSF, after hearing Van Gelder, disqualified him from further participation in the Games. That same day, an NOC*NSF employee was sent with the athlete to escort him to the airport from where he was flown back to the Netherlands. The NOC*NSF then removed Van Gelder from the finals through the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), which appointed a replacement. A short press release by NOC*NSF stated that, in consultation with the KNGU, Van Gelder was sent home after the Federation had informed the NOC that he had come back to the village early in the morning, in spite of the team rules. It further stated that the athlete had admitted to the use of alcohol. This fueled speculation in the media, considering Van Gelder’s past. However, there was also criticism regarding the NOC*NSF’s decision, as many felt that it was disproportionate to disqualify an athlete, who had worked so hard to reach the finals, for celebrating one night out with still more than a week to go to those finals.

Van Gelder, now back in the Netherlands, took a lawyer and decided to start proceedings in front of the Dutch interlocutory judge of the Court of Gelderland (the Van Gelder Case). The oral proceedings, broadcasted live on Dutch television, took place on Friday 12 August, three days before the Olympic finals.

The ruling of the interlocutory Judge of Gelderland

Van Gelder’s lawyer requested from the court to order NOC*NSF to do everything in its power to make sure Van Gelder could participate in the individual finals on the rings on 15 August, including starting proceedings before the CAS Ad Hoc Division in Rio, or that NOC*NSF assist Van Gelder in starting proceedings for the CAS Ad Hoc Division and grant him a fee in advance for the costs.[1]

The court had to determine on which grounds the decision(s) to disqualify Van Gelder from participating in the Games had been taken and whether the severity of the measure(s) was proportionate in relation to the noncompliance with the obligations laid down in the Athlete Agreement. In doing so, the interlocutory judge applies a ‘marginal test’, which means he will keep certain deference towards the challenged decision and will consider only whether the decision ‘could reasonably have been made’.

The Athlete Agreement states that the athlete is expected to make every effort to ensure that he is capable of the maximum athletic performance, in preparation for and during the Olympics, and thereto devotes himself to the ‘Program’ completely and with optimal athletic effort.[2] Furthermore, the athlete is expected to behave as a good member of ‘TeamNL Rio 2016’ both during competition and elsewhere, having in mind the rules of the IOC Code of Ethics but not only.[3] If the athlete is not complying with the obligations as laid down in the Agreement, the NOC*NSF can decide to exclude the athlete from participating in the Games and/or impose a loss of (the right to) a medal bonus.[4] Before taking such a decision the athlete always needs to be heard/questioned.[5]

The court held for a fact that Van Gelder was told by his trainer through ‘WhatsApp’ not to stay out too late, that he should not drink and that he had to train the next day with the team.[6] However, the court was not convinced of Van Gelder’s noncompliance with the ‘behavioral rules’ enshrined in article 6, paragraph 4 of the Athlete Agreement. The Athlete Agreement or the IOC Code of Ethics do not define or specify clearly what these ‘behavioral rules’ stand for, even though the measures the NOC can take can severely affect the athlete. The court considers that these kind of behavioral rules should be drafted more precisely and should be communicated more clearly to the athletes. Thus, merely leaving the Olympic village without permission, drinking, and coming back early in the morning cannot be seen as violating article 6, paragraph 4 of the Agreement with the NOC.[7]

However, the fact that Van Gelder was warned and still went out drinking, came home early in the morning and missed a scheduled training, is undoubtedly coming short of the obligation laid down in article 6, paragraph 3 of the Athlete Agreement. This behavior is contrary to his duty to commit to the training and competition schedule.[8] Furthermore, the court continued, the athlete’s behavior undermined the team’s efforts and, considering Van Gelder’s past, this has resulted in a breach of trust with his trainer and with the NOC*NSF. Although it is possible that, based on this behavior, another NOC would have taken a different decision than kicking the athlete out of the Olympics, the court considers this irrelevant as it only applies a marginal test.[9] In addition, Van Gelder was questioned and heard twice before the decision was made. The decision therefore cannot be considered to have been made in haste or without proper deliberation.[10] In the end, the court determined that the NOC*NSF could reasonably decide that Van Gelder has committed a serious breach of his contractual duties under the Athlete Agreement. The same applied to the decision to disqualify Van Gelder from further participation in the Games.

A different legal route: The CAS Ad Hoc Division in Rio

Could Van Gelder, instead of going to the Dutch court, have taken a different strategic approach in this case? In the author’s opinion this would have been possible, as the CAS has (since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics) set up an Ad Hoc Division with the purpose of providing for arbitration of disputes, insofar as they arise during the Games, within 24 hours.[11] In the case of a request for arbitration against a decision by an NOC, the claimant must, before filing such a request, have exhausted all the internal remedies available to him pursuant to the statutes or regulations of the sports body concerned, unless the time needed to exhaust the internal remedies would make the appeal to the CAS Ad Hoc Division ineffective.[12] In this case, the internal remedy can be found in the Athlete Agreement, which states that when a dispute arises between the parties during the Games concerning or related to the compliance of the Agreement, the concerned party informs the so-called ‘Chef de Mission’. If the Chef de Mission is incapable of resolving the dispute, it will be send to a committee of binding advisors.[13] This committee has jurisdiction in case of urgency and where the athlete and NOC*NSF both choose an advisor, both advisors in turn choose an independent chairman, after which the committee gives a binding decision to end the dispute.[14]

Why Van Gelder had not chosen to apply the internal dispute resolution procedure of article 22, paragraph 3 and 4 of the Athlete Agreement is not clear from the facts of the case. In that regard, the events of 8 August, when Van Gelder was questioned or heard, become (even more) important. The Dutch courts stated that Van Gelder was questioned twice by the NOC*NSF, but did not clarify what was discussed. The only sure thing is that directly after the decision by the NOC*NSF, Van Gelder was escorted to the airport and flew back to the Netherlands. Would he still have left the country if he had been informed that the Agreement provided for an internal procedure within NOC*NSF, aimed at resolving disputes during the Games, in which he had the right to appoint one of the binding advisors? If such a procedure would have taken place and Van Gelder would have lost, an appeal in front of CAS would still have been possible. Furthermore, would he have chosen to fly back, if he had been advised that the CAS Ad Hoc Division had jurisdiction in cases of urgency or if the NOC was unwilling or unable to trigger its internal procedure? Would he have made the same choices had he known that it would help his case before the CAS Ad Hoc Division if he had attended any hearing in person?

What is clear is that Van Gelder got legal representation when he was back in the Netherlands. At that point a flight back to Rio was rather costly for the athlete. An internal procedure with the NOC*NSF might have been impractical to carry out with eight days remaining to the final, but informing the NOC*NSF in writing that there was a dispute and requesting an internal procedure could have (regardless of the NOC’s reaction) helped to establish the jurisdiction of the CAS Ad Hoc Division if needed. This CAS Ad Hoc Division procedure could also have been started from the Netherlands.


The remaining unknown is whether the CAS Ad Hoc Division would have ruled in favor of Van Gelder and/or have granted him access to the finals. As the Dutch court stated, the Athlete Agreement is rather unclear with respect to the obligation of an athlete to act as a good team member. The CAS Ad Hoc Division might have taken this vagueness into consideration. Furthermore, the CAS Ad Hoc Division would not have applied the same level of deference as the Dutch court. It could have also taken into account the fact that the consequences of the decision of the NOC*NSF were very severe for the athlete, especially since this would be his last Games. Against all this, the fact would have remained that the behavior of the athlete did breach article 6, paragraph 3 of the Athlete Agreement and that a replacement for Van Gelder in the finals was already appointed. Yet, even if the CAS had invalidated the decision by the NOC without granting Van Gelder a place in the finals, he would have been in a good position to claim damages.

The conclusion that can be drawn from this episode is that Van Gelder could have followed a different legal route. This might have provided the athlete a better chance at winning his legal challenge and get back into the Olympics. The Dutch court has made it clear that it wants the ‘behavioral rules’ drafted by the NOC*NSF, or other sports bodies for that matter, to be more precise and better communicated to the athletes, especially when the measures at the disposal of the NOC can severely affect the rights of an athlete. Besides not drinking, going to bed on time, and never missing training a week before the most important finals of your life, there is another lesson to be learned from the case. As an athlete, when facing sanctions from a Federation, NOC or other SGBs, it is wise to get legal representation immediately. This might increase your chances of successfully challenging the decision and taking part in the Olympic Games or any other competition.

[1] Van Gelder Case, point 3.1.

[2] Article 6, paragraph 3, Athlete agreement. The Program is defined in the agreement as: The training and competition schedule for the Athlete, approved by the Federation after consultation with NOC*NSF, with the goal of qualifying for and participating in the Olympic Games.

[3] Article 6, paragraph 4, Athlete agreement. TeamNL Rio 2016 is defined in the agreement as: The group of both athletes and their trainers/coaches, that is participating in the Olympic Games (and with whom NOC*NSF has a written agreement for the Olympic Games Rio 2016) and that has asked for accreditation by OCOG through NOC*NSF.

[4] Article 20, paragraph 1, sub a and b, Athlete Agreement.

[5] Article 20, paragraph 2, Athlete Agreement.

[6] Van Gelder Case, point 4.3.

[7] Ibid, point 4.6.

[8] Ibid, point 4.7.

[9] Ibid, point 4.9.

[10] Ibid, point 4.10.

[11] See on the CAS Ad Hoc Division for example: C. Keidel and A. Engelhard,’The Legal Framework of the CAS Ad Hoc Division at the Rio Olympic Games’, LawInSport August 4 2016, via:, viewed on the 24th of August 2016. And from the same authors: ‘Key Ad Hoc Division Cases handed down at the Olympic Games, LawInSport August 4 2016, via:, viewed on the 24th of August 2016.

[12] See Article 1 of the Arbitration Rules applicable to the CAS ad hoc division for the Olympic Games.

[13] Athlete agreement, Article 22, paragraph 4.

[14] Ibid, Article 22, paragraph 3.

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