By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The International Skating Union (ISU) on Wednesday lost its bid to overturn an EU antitrust order that it stop penalising speed skaters for taking part in new money-spinning events, as Europe's second-highest court backed the earlier order.
Legal experts in sports-related cases said the decision could affect other sports and become as significant as the 1995 court ruling involving Belgian soccer player Jean-Marc Bosman, which paved the way for the free movement of players in the EU.
"The judgement is like opening the Berlin Wall for athletes," said Mark Orth of MEOlaw.
"It puts the long established discretionary actions of sports federations towards their athletes into very tight straits, which opens freedom for athletes."
The case could, for example, make it easier for unofficial and breakaway events and competitions to be set up without the approval of a sport's governing body.
The European Commission in its 2017 ruling said the sport's governing body had imposed "disproportionately punitive" sanctions on skaters, preventing the emergence of rival events in violation of EU antitrust rules.
The case centred on a complaint by Dutch Olympic speed skaters Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt after ISU threats of a lifetime ban stopped them from competing in lucrative Ice Derby events run by a South Korean company.
The Luxembourg-based General Court agreed with the EU competition enforcers.
"The rules of the International Skating Union providing for severe penalties for athletes taking part in speed skating events not recognised by it are contrary to EU competition law," judges said.
However, they also faulted the Commission for disputing the ISU's arbitration rules, which give the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport exclusive jurisdiction to hear appeals against ineligibility decisions and make such arbitration binding.
The Commission had said such arbitration rules further restricted competition.
"The Commission was wrong to dispute the ISU's arbitration rules," the General Court said.
The ISU had previously said it had never imposed lifetime bans and that it has already revised its sanctions regime.
"Whenever sport federations want to restrict the freedom of their athletes, they have to prove that such actions do have a predefined legitimate object, which is set out in clear and transparent terms in advance," Orth said.
"The practice of using lots of discretion by sports federations when applying their rules has now been stopped by the European General Court," he added.
The case is T-93/18, International Skating Union v Commission.
(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Hugh Lawson)