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How 2019 Will Shape the International Sports Law of the 2020s - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth 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

As we begin plunging into a new decade, it can be helpful to look back and reflect on some of the most influential developments and trends from 2019 that may continue to shape international sports law in 2020 and beyond. Hence, this piece will not attempt to recount every single sports law news item but rather identify a few key sports law stories of 2019 that may have a continued impact in the 2020s. The following sections are not in a particular order.

2.     Court of Justice of the European Union’s TopFit Decision

The Court of Justice of the European Union’s decision in TopFit in June sent shockwaves in the EU sports law world by finally providing some answers to a long untouched issue of purely amateur sport. The case concerned an Italian amateur athlete, living in Germany for several years who had been precluded from participating in a German national championship in the senior category due to no longer fulfilling the nationality requirements because of a change of the Deutscher Leichtathletikverband’s (DLV) regulations governing this issue. Daniele Biffi, the athlete in the case, argued that this violated his European citizenship rights under Articles 18 and 21 TFEU. Leading up to the final decision, the Advocate General’s opinion in the case, analyzed in an earlier blog, had sidelined this argument in favor of embracing a more familiar economic argument based on the freedom of establishment. AG Tanchev contended that an analysis based on Article 18 and 21 TFEU may open a pandora’s box by giving horizontal direct effect to Article 21 TFEU. In the end, the CJEU took the issue of European citizenship rights head on. The CJEU’s decision, also analyzed in our blog, focused on three themes: the general applicability of EU law to amateur sport, the horizontal applicability of European citizenship rights, and the justifications and accompanied proportionality requirements to nationality restrictions in national championships. It found that Mr. Biffi could rely on Articles 18 and 21 TFEU and ruled that the DLV’s justifications for the rule change were disproportionate.

All things considered, there are a variety of ways TopFit may have a lasting impact. For example, the ‘golden rule’ of EU sports law had once been that an economic dimension was always needed to trigger the applicability of EU law. This is clearly no longer the case as the CJEU in TopFit expressly confirmed that European citizenship rights, which do not require an economic dimension to be invoked, could be relied upon in a sports related case, meaning that all sport activity is subject to EU law. Additionally, TopFit may have unlocked the true potential behind European citizenship rights by giving them horizontal direct effect, which may have ramifications far beyond sports law.[1]  In the years ahead, it will be interesting to see whether this will trigger a flood of new cases based on European citizenship rights.

3.     Decision of the Bundeskartellamt (German Competition Authority) Concerning Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter

As has become tradition in the lead up to an Olympic year, athletes have once more been pushing back against bye-law 3 of rule 40 of the Olympic Charter (OC), which restricts advertisements from athletes participating in the Olympic Games. While rule 40’s intent is to combat ambush marketing at the Games to protect the value of the Olympic Partner Programme (TOP), athletes have argued that it severely restricts their ability to financially exploit their sport achievements during the Olympic Games, which for many is a once in a lifetime opportunity for greater exposure.[2] This is compounded by the fact that many athletes struggle to make a living from their sport. This situation most recently culminated in a decision of the Bundeskartellamt (the German competition law authority) that focused on this issue. In its preliminary assessment of the case, the Bundeskartellamt took a restrictive view of when limitations on athlete advertisements could be justified by narrowly interpreting ambush marketing and finding that restrictions on advertisement must aim to protect specific intellectual property rights. In the end, the Deutscher Olympischer Sportbund (Germany’s national Olympic committee) made several commitments to resolve the case.[3]

The decision is likely to (and has already to a certain extent[4]) help spark a shift in the IOC’s position on this issue. Furthermore, the British Olympic Association has just recently faced a new complaint on behalf of some of its athletes. Regardless, it is clear the European Commission is closely following the situation and given the Bundeskartellamt’s decision is only enforceable within Germany, there is a continued possibility that the Commission and ultimately the CJEU may eventually have a final say on this issue. Rule 40 undoubtedly is an issue that deserves attention, especially with Tokyo 2020 around the corner.

4.     Sun Yang’s Public Hearing at the CAS

2019 also proved to be quite the historic year for sport arbitration since for the second time in its 35-year history, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) conducted a public hearing. It signals that the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) Pechstein decision is starting to have a transformative effect at the CAS. To quickly recap, the ECtHR had found in Pechstein that clauses that impose CAS arbitration as a condition to participate in sport activity amount to forced arbitration, meaning that in cases resulting from such circumstances (especially disciplinary cases) the CAS must observe Article 6§1 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which sets out the right to a fair trial.[5] This includes that ‘in principle, litigants have a right to a public hearing’.[6] Consequently, parties have greater room to request a public hearing at the CAS, especially when the dispute is of a disciplinary nature.[7] Hence, Sun Yang’s public hearing may be heralding a new era where public hearings at the CAS become a common display.

Sun Yang’s hearing also highlighted some of the practical challenges of conducting live hearings when the proceedings are in a different language as some of the parties and/or witnesses. As covered in our monthly report, the interpreters failed to properly translate multiple testimonies during the Sun Yang hearing. Many wondered whether there would be a need for greater safeguards in terms of the quality of translation given how it can affect one’s right to be heard. However, the CAS maintained that it could not directly hire its own ‘official’ translators because it would potentially threaten its ‘independence and neutrality’. Yet, one could envision that the CAS would set certain minimum standards for parties’ interpreters and or manages a list of accredited interpreters from which the parties could pick. In any event, this case signals the beginning of a new public era in sports arbitration that will profoundly shift the way the game is played at the CAS in the 2020s.

5.     New FIFA Legal Portal

FIFA has taken a step towards increasing its transparency through the launch of a new legal portal in which it has undertaken to publish all the decisions of the Disciplinary Committee, Appeal Committee, the Adjudicatory Chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee, the Dispute Resolution Chamber, the Player Status Committee, the CAS where FIFA is a party, and a multitude of other documents with a legal dimension. According to FIFA, these decisions will be updated every 4 months, meaning that a new batch of decisions should be expected to be posted soon. The initiative for the FIFA Legal portal was resulting from a push for greater transparency in its governance as a cornerstone of its 2016 FIFA 2.0: The Vision for the Future.

Increasing transparency in this manner will give greater room for stakeholders and the general public to keep FIFA accountable, review the work of its disciplinary bodies and criticise the legal reasoning they use. However, only time will tell whether this portal will deliver a reliable and useful level of transparency enabling a rigorous public scrutiny on FIFA.

6.     Caster Semenya Case

Caster Semenya’s struggles with World Athletics (formerly IAAF) continued in 2019, culminating in a CAS award followed by an interim decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT), both in favor of World Athletics. The case revolved around World Athletics’ DSD Regulations (difference of sex development) that required athletes competing in the female category in certain events (400m to one mile) at an international level to keep their testosterone levels below five nmol/L. Caster Semenya challenged these regulations arguing that they were ‘unfairly’ discriminating against females and especially those with ‘certain physiological traits’ because they were not scientifically based, they are ‘unnecessary to ensure fair competition within the female classification’ and would likely ‘cause grave, unjustified and irreparable harm’. The CAS award found that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory, however, they are also proportionate to World Athletics’ ‘aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics’. The award was subsequently appealed to the Swiss Federal Tribunal who in a second interim decision lifted its provisional suspension of the DSD Regulations. With this decision, Caster Semenya was barred from participating in the World Championships in Doha.

Looking at the case as a whole, some have underlined the manner in which World Athlete’s regulations only target women and argued that it is fundamentally rooted in gender stereotypes. It also illustrates how certain assumptions on sex[8] have shaped World Athletics policies on this issue, while others also contend that it is unethical to force athletes to have to reduce their testosterone levels if there is no underlying medical need.[9]  To be fair, the issue is not entirely black and white and nuanced arguments have also been made in support of testosterone testing.[10] In any event, this case will necessarily become an important classic of international sports law and most likely linger in the docket of the ECtHR (or of the South African constitutional court) for years to come. It will refine the scope of the autonomy of SGBs and test the reputation of the CAS.   

7.     Russian Doping Scandal Continues

The last, and perhaps the news item that received the most media attention, is the ongoing Russian doping scandal. Worries arose once again earlier this year after inconsistencies were uncovered from data retrieved from the Moscow Laboratory. In response, the WADA Executive Committee decided unanimously on December 9 in favor of a four-year period of non-compliance, following the recommendation of WADA’s Compliance Review Committee. RUSADA swiftly appealed the WADA’s decision to the CAS.

The reemergence of the Russian doping scandal has reignited discussions on whether the original decision to declare Russia compliant in September 2018 was perhaps premature. At the time, that decision had been especially criticized by athlete representative groups. This round of the Russian doping scandal may prove to be a greater test on WADA’s ability to keep credibility with the world’s athletes and the general public. Some, like Richard Pound have contended that the new sanctions are tough,[11] but others have argued that more could be done and that leaving the door open to certain ‘approved’ Russian athletes puts clean sport at risk. So far, Russia‘s leadership have mainly characterized the investigation and following sanctions as a witch-hunt stemming from anti-Russian sentiment. The scandal will loom large over the Tokyo Olympics and will probably lead to a fresh wave of Russian cases before the CAS and the SFT.

8.     Conclusion

2019 was a rich year for international and European sports law with many landmark decisions taken, which will have a long-lasting effect on the field. Changes linked to the transparency of sports justice and governance are more likely to have unpredictable transformative consequences as they will enhance the ability of the media to subject sports arbitrators and administrators to rigorous scrutiny. Furthermore, the Rule 40 case and the TopFit decision are also strong reminders of the power of EU law (be it competition law or citizenship rights) as a vehicle to check the decisions of the SGBs. Finally, the Semenya case is certainly the CAS award of the year. It pushed to the forefront a fundamental ethical and philosophical question: Should SGBs be entitled to define the sporting sex of an athlete? What is their legitimacy in taking such a decision?

[1] It is possible that these situations may still be limited since the CJEU’s decision indicates that a power disparity is needed between the parties. See Case C-22/18 TopFit e.V. Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband e.V. [2019] ECLI:EU:C:2019:497, para 39.

[2] See our previous blog on rule 40 (and the Bundeskartellamt’s decision), which goes in depth on rule 40’s inception and purpose.

[3] Commitments included: ‘(1) no more authorization required for advertisements during the frozen period and instead athletes can request that the DOSB review planned advertisements beforehand to confirm if it meets the admissibility criteria; (2) advertisement campaigns may now be launched during the frozen period; (3) pictures of athletes during Olympic competitions may be used for advertisement so long as it does not include protected Olympic logos, symbols or designations; (4) videos are restricted only to the German House, the Olympic village or the back of house areas and (5) sports related sanctions are no longer available (only economic sanctions are possible) and athletes may have recourse to German courts.’

[4] Rule 40 OC has been reformulated from a ban on athlete advertisement with certain exceptions to where athlete advertisements are allowed subject to restrictions.

[5] See Antoine Duval, ‘The “Victory” of the Court of Arbitration for Sport at the European Court of Human Rights: The End of the Beginning for the CAS’ (Asser International Sports Law Blog, 10 October 2018).

[6]Guide on Article 6 of the European Convention on Huma Rights’ (ECtHR 2019).

[7] The R57 of the Code was amended in January of last year. See the current version of R57 CAS Code.

[8] While this piece was written in relation to the previous IAAF regulations ‘Regulations Governing Eligibility of Females with Hyperandrogenism to Compete in Women's Competition’, it is still relevant to the current regulations: Cheryl Cooky and Shari L Dworkin, ‘Policing the Boundaries of Sex: A Critical Examination of Gender Verification and the Caster Semenya Controversy’ [2013] 50 Journal of Sex Research 103.

[9] This piece also was written concerning the previous IAAF regulations, it also is still relevant to the current discussion: Malcolm Ferguson-Smith and Dawn Bavington, ‘Natural Selection for Genetic Variants in Sport: The Role of Y Chromosome Genes in Elite Female Athletes with 46,XY DSD’ [2014] 44 Sports Medicine 1629.

[10] This piece also was written concerning the previous IAAF regulations, it also is still relevant to the current discussion: Francisco J. Sánchez , María José Martínez-Patiño and Eric Vilain, ‘The New Policy on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes is Not About “Sex Testing”’ [2013] 50 Journal of Sex Research 112.

[11] See also LawInSport’s interview with Jonathan Taylor QC, chair of WADA’s Compliance Review Committee, explaining the reasoning behind the recommendations.

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