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

12th round of Caster Semenya’s legal fight: too close to call? - By Jeremy Abel

Editor's note: Jeremy Abel is a recent graduate of the LL.M in International Business Law and Sports of the University of Lausanne.


1.     Introduction

The famous South African athlete Caster Semenya is in the last lap of her long legal battle for her right to run without changing the natural testosterone in her body. After losing her cases before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the Swiss Federal Tribunal, she filed an application before the European Court of Human Rights (Court). In the meantime, the Court has released a summary of her complaint and a series of questions addressed to the parties of the case.

As is well known, she is challenging the World Athletics’ Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Regulations) defining the conditions under which female and intersex athletes with certain types of differences of sex development (DSDs) can compete in international athletics events. Despite the Regulations emanating from World Athletics, the last round of her legal battle is against a new opponent: Switzerland.

The purpose of this article is to revisit the Semenya case from a European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) perspective while considering certain excellent points made by previous contributors (see here, here and here) to this blog. Therefore, the blog will follow the basic structure of an ECHR case. The following issues raised by Semenya shall be analysed: the applicability of the ECHR, Semenya’s right to private life (Article 8 ECHR) and to non discrimination (Article 14 ECHR), as well as the proportionality of the Regulations. More...

New Event! The Court of Arbitration for Sport at the European Court of Human Rights - Prof. Helen Keller - 26 May - 16:00

On Wednesday 26 May 2021 from 16.00-17.00 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret (University of Lausanne), is organising its fifth Zoom In webinar on the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) from the perspective of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

We have the pleasure to be joined by Prof. Helen Keller, former Judge at the ECtHR and a prominent dissenter to the majority’s ruling in the Mutu and Pechstein case.

The ECtHR decision in the Mutu and Pechstein case rendered on 2 October 2018 is widely seen as one of the most important European sports law rulings. It was also the first decision of the Strasbourg court dealing with a case in which the CAS had issued an award. The applicants, Adrian Mutu and Claudia Pechstein, were both challenging the compatibility of CAS proceedings with the procedural rights enshrined in Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The court famously declined to conclude that the CAS lacked independence or impartiality, but did find that, insofar as Claudia Pechstein was concerned, she was forced to undergo CAS arbitration and, therefore, that CAS proceedings had to fully comply with the procedural rights guaranteed in the ECHR. In particular, the court held that the refusal by CAS to hold a public hearing, in spite of Claudia Pechstein’s express request, was contrary to Article 6(1) ECHR. Beyond this case, as highlighted by the recent decision of Caster Semenya to submit an application to the ECtHR, the decision opens the way for a more systematic intervention of the Strasbourg court in assessing the human rights compatibility of CAS awards and more broadly of the transnational sports regulations imposed by international sports governing bodies.

Prof. Helen Keller will discuss with us the implications of the ECtHR’s Mutu and Pechstein decision and the potential for future interventions by the court in the realm of the lex sportiva.

The webinar will take the form of an interview followed by a short Q&A open to the digital public. 

Please note the discussion will NOT be recorded and posted on our Youtube channel. 

Register HERE!

“Sport Sex” before the European Court of Human Rights - Caster Semenya v. Switzerland - By Michele Krech

Editor's note: Michele Krech is a JSD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow at NYU School of Law. She was retained as a consultant by counsel for Caster Semenya in the proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport discussed above. She also contributed to two reports mentioned in this blog post: the Report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  Intersection of race and gender discrimination in sport (June 2020); and the Human Rights Watch Report, “They’re Chasing Us Away from Sport”: Human Rights Violations in Sex Testing of Elite Women Athletes (December 2020).

This blog was first published by the Völkerrechtsblog and is republished here with authorization. Michele Krech will be joining our next Zoom In webinar on 31 March to discuss the next steps in the Caster Semenya case.

Sport is the field par excellence in which discrimination
against intersex people has been made most visible.

Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe
Issue Paper: Human rights and intersex people (2015)

Olympic and world champion athlete Caster Semenya is asking the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to make sure all women athletes are “allowed to run free, for once and for all”. Semenya brings her application against Switzerland, which has allowed a private sport association and a private sport court to decide – with only the most minimal appellate review by a national judicial authority – what it takes for women, legally and socially identified as such all their lives, to count as women in the context of athletics. I consider how Semenya’s application might bring human rights, sex, and sport into conversation in ways not yet seen in a judicial forum. More...

New Event - Zoom In - Caster Semenya v. International Association of Athletics Federations - 31 March - 16.00-17.30 CET

On Wednesday 31 March 2021 from 16.00-17.30 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret (University of Lausanne), is organising its fourth Zoom In webinar on the recent developments arising from the decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) in the case Caster Semenya v. International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics), delivered on 25 August 2020.

The participation of athletes with biological sex differences to international competitions is one of the most controversial issues in transnational sports law. In particular, since 2019, Caster Semenya, an Olympic champion from South-Africa has been challenging the World Athletics eligibility rules for Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD Regulation), which would currently bar her from accessing international competitions (such as the Tokyo Olympics) unless she accepts to undergo medical treatment aimed at reducing her testosterone levels. In April 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected her challenge against the DSD Regulation in a lengthy award. In response, Caster Semenya and the South African Athletics Federation filed an application to set aside the award before the Swiss Federal Tribunal. In August 2020, the SFT released its decision rejecting Semenya’s challenge of the award (for an extensive commentary of the ruling see Marjolaine Viret’s article on the Asser International Sports Law Blog).

Recently, on 25 February 2021, Caster Semenya announced her decision to lodge an application at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) against Switzerland on the basis of this judgment. In this context, we thought it important to organise a Zoom In webinar around the decision of the SFT and the pending case before the ECtHR. Indeed, should the ECtHR accept the case, it will be in a position to provide a definitive assessment of the human rights compatibility of the DSD Regulation. Moreover, this decision could have important consequences on the role played by human rights in the review of the private regulations and decisions of international sports governing bodies.


Participation is free, register HERE.

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...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | Balancing Athletes’ Interests and The Olympic Partner Programme: the Bundeskartellamt’s Rule 40 Decision - By Thomas Terraz

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

Balancing Athletes’ Interests and The Olympic Partner Programme: the Bundeskartellamt’s Rule 40 Decision - 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

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), after many years of ineffective pushback (see here, here and here) over bye law 3 of rule 40[1] of the Olympic Charter (OC), which restricts the ability of athletes and their entourage to advertise themselves during the ‘blackout’ period’[2] (also known as the ‘frozen period’) of the Olympic Games, may have been gifted a silver bullet to address a major criticism of its rules. This (potentially) magic formula was handed down in a relatively recent decision of the Bundeskartellamt, the German competition law authority, which elucidated how restrictions to athletes’ advertisements during the frozen period may be scrutinized under EU competition law. The following blog begins by explaining the historical and economic context of rule 40 followed by the facts that led to the decision of the Bundeskartellamt. With this background, the decision of the Bundeskartellamt is analyzed to show to what extent it may serve as a model for EU competition law authorities.


2        Rule 40 in Context

Before dissecting the decision, the considerable impact of the IOC’s rule 40 and its implementation by national Olympic committees (NOCs) must be emphasized. Many athletes look to the Olympic Games as a unique opportunity to gain exposure and benefit financially from their accomplishments, especially considering that many athletes who qualify for the Olympic Games struggle to make a living from their sport. Athletes are greatly reliant on external funding, particularly from sponsors, to fund their career.[3] To further complicate matters, many sports only enjoy a meaningful spotlight during the Olympic Games. Hence, athletes in those sports view the Games as an unparalleled occasion to become known to a wider public and gain new sponsors. So, why does the IOC restrict these opportunities?

Rule 40’s existence is principally due to The Olympic Partner Programme (TOP), a closed group of thirteen sponsors, which was created in 1985 with the aim of diversifying and securing greater means of funding for the Olympic Games.  It was the brainchild of Michael Payne who has defended the importance of preserving the ‘value of the Olympic sponsorship program’ to prevent a return to the days where the funding of the Games was highly dependent on ticket sales.[4] For the IOC, preserving the value of TOP has meant taking aggressive actions against ambush marketing, which according to Payne is ‘any communication or activity that implies, or from which one could reasonably infer, that an organisation is associated with an event, when in fact it is not’. Payne describes the ways in which the IOC has attempted to tackle ambush marketing, which includes educating the public about ambush marketing, preventing ambush marketing through prohibiting non-sponsor association and controlling Olympic imagery among other methods, and finally legal action, which according to Payne, ‘the mere threat of this is often enough to bring the offending party into line’. In this view, rule 40 can mainly be categorized as a preventative measure.

Rule 40 has also experienced an evolution ever since it was first introduced in 1991 into the OC, which has also meant that ‘defining the scope of rule 40 and understanding its nuances is a process that evolves with each iteration of the games’.[5] Although rule 40 has recently moved from a general ban on advertising with limited exceptions into allowing it under severe restrictions, it remains to be seen whether the IOC will fundamentally rethink the conditions applied to athlete advertising. Meanwhile, athletes, who were partly the initiators of the complaint to the Bundeskartellamt, have perhaps realized that public awareness campaigns have not brought about the drastic change they had hoped for. In the present case, the Bundeskartellamt’s attention was drawn to rule 40 OC after a complaint from Athleten Deutschland (German Athlete Commission) and Bundesverband der Deutschen Sportartikelindustrie (Federal Association of the German Sports Goods Industry).


3        Background to the Decision

Before examining the substance of the Bundeskartellamt’s decision, it is important to understand that rule 40, as it was analyzed in the decision, was the one that was in place in the lead up to the Rio 2016 Games.[6] It states:

 “Except as permitted by the IOC Executive Board, no competitor, team official or other team personnel who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture, or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.”

In other words, a general ban on advertisement with limited exceptions. The applicable conditions meant that only athletes with TOP sponsors could launch an advertising campaign during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and ongoing campaigns from non-TOP sponsors were subject to authorization. Further complicating the matter, NOCs could introduce additional restrictions or opt-out completely from allowing their athletes to advertise during the frozen period.[7] The German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB), in its 2016 guidelines[AD1]  (page 78), distinguished between DOSB sponsors, Olympic sponsors and non-Olympic sponsors.[8] In the case of non-Olympic sponsors, ‘only advertising activities which had started at least three months prior to the Olympic Games had a chance of being approved’, which means potential sponsors needed to have early concepts ready before that date (early April). It should also be noted that at that time, the DOSB had not yet nominated any athletes for the Olympic Games. In addition to the deadlines, references to the Olympic Movement were strictly forbidden, which included an incredibly broad list of words and phrases.[9] If they wanted to participate in the Games, athletes were forced to subscribe to these rules via the athlete agreement (page 83) [AD2] and any breach could imply sanctions, which included removal from the Olympic Team.[10]

The conditions that these rules impose is succinctly summarized by Grady who explains that though the IOC claimed it had relaxed its rules, it ‘did not create the kinds of opportunities that the IOC may have envisioned’, which in effect ‘precluded almost all but the most powerful global brands from taking full advantage of the ability to feature Olympic athletes during the Games’, a view that was acknowledged by the Bundeskartellamt.[11]


4        The Bundeskartellamt’s Decision

Although the present case was resolved through the commitments made by the IOC, the Bundeskartellamt still provided a preliminary assessment concerning the relevant market, the abuse of a dominant position, possible justifications, and proportionality, which are analyzed below.

4.1       Relevant Market

Having decided to resolve the case on the basis of Article 102 TFEU,[12] the Bundeskartellamt identified the relevant market on the basis of a ‘modified concept of demand-side substitutability’ and defined the market as the ‘market for the organisation and marketing of the Olympic Games’.[13] It considered that the Olympic Games was an event that differed from other major sport events from the consumers’ point of view because of the wide variety of sports that are covered and because certain sports which perhaps are not normally broadcasted in a particular country receive extensive media coverage during the Games.[14] The Bundeskartellamt supported its analysis of the relevant market by referring to MOTOE in which the CJEU also defined the ‘relevant product market for the organisation (and marketing) of sports events according to the type of sport’.[15] Lastly, it found that the athletes participating in the Games to be ‘customers of the organisation and marketing of sport events’.[16] ‘Other well-known competitions’ could be considered as an alternative for certain athletes, however, many athletes practice sports that receive very little media attention outside the Games, meaning that overall the substitutability between the Olympic Games and other major sports events is limited.[17]

4.2       An Abuse of a Dominant Position

Next, the Bundeskartellamt considered the members of the Olympic Movement to be in a collectively dominant position in the aforementioned market and deemed them to be undertakings regardless of the fact that they do not make a profit.[18] It also asserted that the members of the Olympic Movement were abusing their dominant position, hindering effective competition, for several reasons. First, the registration deadlines to request authorization were set too early since athletes did not know whether they were even going to the Olympics in the first place. Moreover, the Bundeskartellamt ruled that the very use of registration and authorization criteria could have a prohibitive effect for certain kinds of advertisements. Even though ‘ongoing’ advertisement could be approved, it was still subject to restrictions since it could not use any ‘designations and symbols as well as images and videos’ connected to the Olympic Games.[19] As stated earlier, these are very extensive and make it ‘difficult to market an athlete’s participation in the Olympic Games’.[20] In the end, the sanctions that athletes could face exacerbated the restriction on competition, especially since the sanctions had no proportionality requirements and an appeal could only be made to the CAS.[21]

4.3       Justifications

At this point the Bundeskartellamt moved to make a preliminary assessment as to whether the abuse of the dominant position inherently pursued legitimate objectives and whether the restriction is proportionate to its claimed objective (the Wouters test[22]).  It is interesting to note that the Bundeskartellamt decided to apply the Wouters test to an Article 102 TFEU case and expressly stated that ‘it is to be assumed that the criteria are also meant to apply with regard to the applicability of Art. 82 EC’ (now Article 102 TFEU) in referring to the CJEU’s Meca-Medina case.[23]  Only one of the pursued objectives of the IOC was considered legitimate, while all the others, including ‘preserving the financial stability and sustainability of the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games’, ‘preserving the value of the Olympic brand to finance the Olympic solidarity model’, and ‘preventing the excessive commercialisation of the Olympic Games’, were not found to be legitimate.[24] The three rejected objectives reflects the decisional practice of the Commission and the CJEU that ‘economic aims cannot justify restrictions’, which the Bundeskartellamt directly acknowledges.[25] This is why it is interesting that the Bundeskartellamt then found that the ‘prevention of ambush marketing during the frozen period in order to safeguard the funding of the Olympic Games, facilitated in part by Olympic sponsorship programmes, and thus to ensure that the Games can be held on a regular basis’ as the only legitimate objective.[26]

A literal reading of this aim seemingly exposes an economic dimension since the IOC wishes to protect TOP and as a consequence, its own budget. However, the Bundeskartellamt was convinced by the IOC’s contention that this was no economic objective,[27] since the ultimate aim of the objective is to ensure the Olympic Games’ consistent occurrence. It could be argued that there are in fact two objectives mangled into one: (1) the prevention of ambush marketing to protect TOP (an economically motivated objective) and (2) ensuring the regular occurrence of the Games (a non-economically motivated objective). The Bundeskartellamt decided to not disentangle the two and accepted that they were in fact one inseparable objective, whereby the latter sub-objective ultimately sidelines the economic dimension of the first. On the other hand, the CJEU’s case law on economic justifications has not been entirely consistent and there has been occasions where it has accepted economic justifications.[28] Furthermore, an efficiency defense could also allow for economic justifications in which the IOC could argue that preventing ambush marketing in order to protect TOP benefits consumers, outweighing any negative effects to competition.[29] In the end, it might be desirable that any future analysis of this dual objective at least acknowledge that there is an underlying economic interest. [TT3] 

4.4       Proportionality

Before analyzing the proportionality of the measure in terms of the prevention of ambush marketing, the Bundeskartellamt defined ambush marketing as ‘the planned endeavour of a company, which is not an official sponsor of a major (sports) event, to attract public attention to its own business by means of marketing activities related to the event, and thus to profit from the communication performance of the event (e.g. high profile, image) without making a financial contribution’.[30] In the corresponding footnote, the Bundeskartellamt makes reference to the definitions of ambush marketing on Wikipedia, which upon closer inspection is taken from Manuela Sachse’s book Negative Kommunikationseffekte von Sponsoring und Ambush-Marketing bei Sportgroßveranstaltungen. It is rather unfortunate that the Bundeskartellamt did not elaborate on why it chose this particular definition of ambush marketing.

Nonetheless, on the formal aspects, the Bundeskartellamt held that the DOSB’s pre-authorization scheme for individual advertisements was disproportionate, especially due to the deadlines. Moving to substantive aspects, it maintained that individual advertisement could only be prohibited if it violated specific legal provisions such as intellectual property rights or specific contractual obligations.[31] Violations of property rights ‘only exist in cases where the public perception is that there are economic and organisation relations between the owner of the property rights and the company which uses Olympic designations’, referring to the jurisprudence of the German Federal Court of Justice.[32] The Bundeskartellamt makes reference to the reasonably well-informed consumer standard, which is also recognized in EU law,[33] to explain that consumers are able to differentiate between ‘a sponsor’s advertising and a reference to the Olympic Games in a promotional context’ and that simply a positive association or temporal connection with the Olympic Games and Olympic Movement is not a violation of intellectual property rights.[34] In this regard, the Bundeskartellamt only found prohibiting the use of ‘Team Deutschland’ during the Olympic Games and the use of ‘a combination of the respective location and the year’, e.g. Rio 2016, during the frozen period to be proportionate, while finding the other restrictions to be disproportionate.[35] In terms of the restrictions on photos and social media posts, the Bundeskartellamt held that the general prohibition of taking photos at Olympic venues for individual advertising measures and posts on social media accounts that do not have any protected ‘designations or symbols’ to be disproportionate.[36]

Ultimately, the sanctions, in particular sporting sanctions, were judged to be disproportionate because of their potential impact on athletes’ careers, since they could affect the athletes existing and future sponsorship opportunities and a competition ban could also, depending on the athlete’s age and the ban’s length, end an athlete’s career. The very existence of sporting sanctions could have a ‘deterrent effect’.[37] Additionally, the CAS’ exclusive jurisdiction over disputes could jeopardize the effectiveness of competition law since ‘there is no guarantee that the parties’ action against an athlete will also be subject to judicial review under European antitrust law’, especially when considering that neither the Swiss or German courts would conduct such a review in an action against the enforcement of the award.[38]  Sports sanctions are also typically carried out by the sport bodies themselves, without intervention of public bodies. Interestingly, the Bundeskartellamt acknowledged the German athletes’ position that the CAS proceedings were longer and more costly than proceedings in front of German courts, which directly contradicts the IOC’s claimed benefits of sports arbitration.[39]


5        The Commitments and Potential for Further Intervention Under EU law

After two rounds of negotiations, the DOSB was able to put an end to its infringements by making several commitments that brought its policy on athlete advertisement into line with the Bundeskartellamt’s findings. The commitments submitted after the first round did not go far enough to quell the competition concerns and most sponsors and athletes found ‘little or no improvement in the modified guidelines’. The original commitments were deemed to be too restrictive on the protected Olympic related terms, not provide sufficient opportunities for advertising on social media, not sufficiently delineate the responsibilities of the different parties, and the exclusive jurisdiction of the CAS coupled with sporting sanctions continued to have ‘a strong deterrent effect’.[40] After the second round of negotiations, the most important  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[41] 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. All in all, the new Guidelines will allow athletes to advertise during the Games provided that they observe certain restrictions that mainly relate to intellectual property rights.[42] This compromise fosters a far better balance between the IOC’s interests to protect the value of the Games and TOP and the athletes’ wish to expand their financial opportunities during perhaps the most important time of their careers.

The analysis undertaken by the Bundeskartelamt is likely to influence any future intervention of the European Commission on this issue. After all, it is quite possible that the Commission may have to take action since the Bundeskartellamt’s decision ‘is enforceable only as regards individual advertising and marketing activities of German Olympic athletes on the German market’. In doing so, the Commission may have to elaborate whether a pre-authorization scheme for advertisements with reasonable deadlines could be compatible with EU law and perhaps further scrutinize the definition of ambush marketing and potential objective justifications that are completely void of an economic motive. The Commission would likely evaluate any advertisement pre-authorization regime in light of the ISU criteria.[43] From a pure competition law perspective, it could also be an opportunity for the Commission and ultimately the CJEU to expressly confirm whether the Wouters test extends to Article 102 TFEU.

Regardless, Commissioner Verstager explained that this is ‘an example of the way the network operates, with the Commission and the German competition authority working closely together’. She also underlined that the Bundeskartellamt’s decision could ‘create incentives for a change of the relevant rules at national and international level, with the Commission following closely any developments in this direction’. Thus, the possibility that the Commission will at some point intervene seems dependent on how seriously the IOC takes this decision. In the meantime, British athletes have also threatened legal action on the basis of EU competition law against the British Olympic Association over its implementation of rule 40, which demonstrates the ongoing nature of this saga.


6        Conclusion

The Bundeskartellamt’s narrow interpretation of ambush marketing and emphasis on the protection of intellectual property rights will most likely influence the IOC’s strategy to protect the value of TOP. For example, it could prompt the IOC to place greater efforts into expanding its protected properties. Nevertheless, the IOC’s war against ambush marketing has widened from its original concept and even Michael Payne has been one to express his concern about the extent to which the IOC has gone in order to protect TOP and has expressed the need to apply the rules with ‘balance and common sense’. Albeit these comments were made concerning the rules for ‘clean’ venues at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, there is a certain resonance to the present situation and begs the question whether drastically restricting athletes in their often one-time chance to earn decent money through sponsoring is absolutely necessary to protect the economic viability of the Olympics as a whole.

[1] When the blog refers to rule 40, it refers specifically to bye law 3 of rule 40 OC.

[2] The ‘blackout’ period starts 9 days before the Olympic Game’s opening ceremony to 3 days after the closing ceremony.

[3] Nicholas Gary Schlereth and Evan Frederick, ‘Going for Gold: Social Media and the USOC’ [2017] 27 Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport 19.

[4] Michael Payne, ‘Ambush Marketing: The Undeserved Advantage’ [1998] 15 Psychology and Marketing 323.

[5] John Grady, ‘Analyzing Rule 40’s Restrictions on Using Atheletes in Olympic Sponsorship at Rio 2016’ [2017] 15 Entertainment and Sports Law Journal 1.

[6] Bundeskartellamt, Decision pursuant to Section 32b GWB Public version, B-226/17 (February 25, 2019) para 3.

[7] ibid para 5.

[8] ibid para 7.

[9] See ibid para 8 for examples.

[10] ibid para 11 and 65.

[11] Grady (n 7) and ibid para 69.

[12] Decision pursuant to Section 32b GWB Public version, B-226/17 (n 3) para 41.

[13] ibid para 44 and 56.

[14] ibid para 46-47.

[15] ibid para 46.

[16] ibid para 53.

[17] ibid para 54.

[18] ibid para 58-63.

[19] ibid para 71.

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid para 75-76.

[22] Case C-309/99 Wouters and Others [2002] ECLI:EU:C:2002:98, para 97.

[23] See Decision pursuant to Section 32b GWB Public version, B-226/17 (n 3) footnote 52.

[24] ibid para 102-105.

[25] See International Skating Union’s Eligibility rules (CASE AT. 40208) [2017] C(2017) 8240, footnote 350 and ibid para 95.

[26] Decision pursuant to Section 32b GWB Public version, B-226/17 (n 3) para 96.

[27] ibid para 27.

[28] For an exploration of accepted economic objectives see Sue Arrowsmith, ‘Rethinking the Approach to Economic Justifications under the EU's Free Movement Rules’ [2015] 69 Current Legal Problems 307.

[29] See for example, Case C-209/10 Post Danmark A/S v Konkurrencerådet [2012] ECLI:EU:C:2012:172, para 41-42.

[30] ibid para 97.

[31] ibid para 108-109.

[32] ibid para 110, referring to Federal Court of Justice, judgment of 15 May 2014 – I ZR 131/13, Olympia-Rabatt.

[33] Case C-210/96 Gut Springenheide and Tusky v Oberkreisdirektor des Kreises Steinfurt [1998] ECLI:EU:C:1998:369, para 31.

[34] Decision pursuant to Section 32b GWB Public version, B-226/17 (n 3) para 110-111.

[35] ibid para 115-118.

[36] ibid 119-120.

[37] ibid para 122.

[38] ibid para 124.

[39] ibid para 124.

[40] ibid para 128.

[41] Protected Olympic logos, symbols or designations are also not allowed in videos.

[42] Decision pursuant to Section 32b GWB Public version, B-226/17 (n 3) para 136-148.

[43] A pre-authorization scheme must (a) ‘provide for sanctions and authorization criteria that are inherent in the pursuit of legitimate objectives’, (b) ‘provide for objective, transparent and non-discriminatory sanctions and authorization criteria’ that are proportionate to its objectives, and (c) ‘provide for an objective, transparent and non-discriminatory procedure for the adoption and effective review of decisions’.

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