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

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – June - August 2020 by Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 



The Headlines

CAS Decision on Manchester City FC Case

After the UEFA’s Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control’s (CFCB) decision earlier this year to ban Manchester City FC for two seasons, observers waited impatiently to see the outcome of this high profile dispute. The CFCB’s decision had found that Manchester City FC overstated sponsorship revenues and in its break-even information given to UEFA. While some feared this showdown could lead to the demise of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, the now publicized CAS panel’s decision is more nuanced. The panel’s decision turned on (see analysis here and here) (a) whether the ‘Leaked Emails’ were authentic and could be admissible evidence, (b) whether the ‘CFCB breached its obligations of due process’, (c) whether the conclusions of the 2014 Settlement Agreement prevents the CFCB from charging Manchester City FC, (d) whether the charges are time-barred, (e) the applicable standard of proof, (f) whether Manchester City FC masked equity funding as sponsorship contributions, and (g) whether Manchester City FC failed to cooperate with CFCB. In the end, among other findings, the Panel held that some of the alleged breaches were time-barred but maintained that Manchester City FC had failed to cooperate with CFCB’s investigation. In light of this, the Panel significantly reduced the sanction placed on Manchester City FC by removing the two-season suspension and reducing the sanction from 30 million euros to 10 million euros.


Qatar Labour Law Reforms Effectively Abolishes the Kafala System

Just a few days after Human Rights Watch released a lengthy report on abusive practices suffered by migrant workers in Qatar, Qatar adopted a series of laws that effectively gets rid of the Kafala system by no longer requiring migrant workers to obtain a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from their employer in order to start another job. The International Labour Organization declared that this development along with the elimination of the ‘exit permit requirements’ from earlier this year means that the kafala system has been effectively abolished. In addition to these changes, Qatar has also adopted a minimum wage that covers all workers and requires that employers who do not provide food or housing at least give a minimum allowance for both of these living costs. Lastly, the new laws better define the procedure for the termination of employment contracts.

In reaction to these changes, Amnesty International welcomed the reforms and called for them to be ‘swiftly and properly implemented’. Indeed, while these amendments to Qatar’s labour laws are a step in the right direction, Amnesty International also cautions that the minimum wage may still be too low, and in order to be effective, these new laws will have to be followed with ‘strong inspection and complaint mechanisms’.


CAS Decision Concerning Keramuddin Karim Abuse Case

In June of last year, Keramuddin Karim, former president of Afghanistan’s soccer federation, was banned by FIFA for life (see the decision of the adjudicatory Chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee) after reports of sexual and physical abuse that emerged in late 2018. Following a lengthy and tumultuous investigation in Afghanistan, Afghan officials came forward with an arrest warrant for Mr. Karim. Nevertheless, despite attempts to apprehend Mr. Karim, Mr. Karim has still avoided arrest over a year later. Most recently in August, Afghan Special Operation officers attempted to apprehend him but he was not at the residence when they arrived.

Meanwhile, Mr. Karim had appealed FIFA’s lifetime ban to the CAS and the CAS Panel’s decision has recently been released. In its decision, the Panel upheld both the lifetime ban and the 1,000,000 CHF fine, finding that due to the particular egregious nature of Karim’s acts, ‘they warrant the most severe sanction possible available under the FCE’. Since both Karim and his witnesses were unable to be heard, the case raises questions connected to the respect of fundamental procedural rights at the CAS.  More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – March-May 2020 by Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 


The Headlines

Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Over Sports

Since the last monthly report, the coronavirus pandemic has completely taken over the headlines and has had enormous impacts on the sports field. The most significant of these impacts so far was the rather slow (see here and here) decision by the IOC to move the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to 2021 after a widespread push among athlete stakeholders to do so. Concerns were raised that besides the wellbeing of the participants, athletes under lockdowns would not have the access to the training facilities, meaning preparations for the Games would suffer. The IOC has already started its new planning for Tokyo 2021 and sees this new opportunity to be ‘an Olympic flame’ at the end of a ‘dark tunnel’ for the entire world.

Besides the Olympics, football has also experienced colossal effects as this crisis landed right as leagues were approaching the end of their season. In this context, FIFA has released specific guidelines on player contracts and transfer windows, which has included extending player contracts to the new postponed end of season dates. It has also organized a working group on COVID-19, which has already made recommendations to postpone all men and women’s international matches that were to be played during the June 2020 window. Earlier in March, UEFA had already announced that the EURO 2020 was also postponed by 12 months and has also recently approved guidelines on domestic competitions. These guidelines place emphasis on ‘sporting merit’ and urge ‘National Associations and Leagues to explore all possible options to play all top domestic competitions giving access to UEFA club competitions to their natural conclusion’. Nevertheless, UEFA also emphasizes that the health of all stakeholders must remain the top priority.

In the end, numerous sport federations have also had to amend their calendars due to the pandemic (see UCI and FIBA) and a variety of sport stakeholders have been confronted with immense financial strain (e.g. football, tennis and cycling). For example, UEFA has acted preemptively in releasing club benefit payments to try to alleviate the economic pressure faced by clubs. There have also been efforts to support athletes directly (e.g. FIG and ITF). All in all, the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on sport have been unprecedented and will require creative solutions while continuing to place public health as the top priority.

Platini’s ECtHR Appeal Falls Flat

There have also been a few other stories that have (understandably) been overshadowed by the pandemic. One of these include Michel Platini’s unsuccessful appeal to the ECtHR challenging his 2015 football ban. The ECtHR’s decision concerned the admissibility of his appeal and in the end found it to be ‘manifestly ill-founded’. This is because he failed to raise his procedural rights concerns under Article 6 (1) ECHR in his proceedings at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. Besides rejecting his other claims based on Article 7 and 8 ECHR, the ECtHR decision also touched upon the issue of CAS’ procedural and institutional independence. In doing so, it referred to its Pechstein decision and once more affirmed that the CAS is sufficiently independent and impartial (see para 65), further giving credence to this notion from its case law. However, there are still concerns on this matter as was highlighted in the Pechstein dissent. Overall, the decision indicates that the ECtHR is willing to give the CAS the benefit of the doubt so long as it sufficiently takes into account the ECHR in its awards.

Mark Dry – UKAD Dispute

In February, Mark Dry was suspended by UKAD after a decision of the National Anti-Doping Panel (NADP) Appeal Tribunal  for four years after having given a ‘false account’ in order to ‘subvert the Doping Control process’. Specifically, Dry had told anti-doping authorities that he had been out fishing after he had missed a test at his residence. After further investigation, Dry admitted that he had forgotten to update his whereabouts while he was actually visiting his parents in Scotland and in panic, had told anti-doping authorities that he had been out fishing. Following the decision of the NADP Appeal Tribunal, athlete stakeholders have argued the four-year ban was disproportionate in this case. In particular, Global Athlete contended that Whereabouts Anti-Doping Rule Violations only occur in cases where an athlete misses three tests or filing failures within a year. Furthermore, even if Dry had ‘tampered or attempted to tamper’, a four-year sanction is too harsh. Subsequently, UKAD responded with a statement, arguing that ‘deliberately providing false information’ is ‘a serious breach of the rules’ and that the UKAD NADP Appeal Tribunal ‘operates independently’. In light of the mounting pressure, Witold Bańka, WADA President, also responded on Twitter that he is ‘committed to ensuring that athletes’ rights are upheld under the World Anti-Doping Code’. More...

Anti-Doping in Times of COVID-19: A Difficult Balancing Exercise for WADA - 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.

I.               Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the manner in which we approach human interactions that suppose close and prolonged physical contact. Across the world, authorities are having to design ways to resume essential activities without jeopardising participants’ health, all the while guaranteeing that other fundamental rights are paid due respect. The fight against doping is no exception. Anti-doping organizations – whether public or private – have to be held to the same standards, including respect for physical integrity and privacy, and considerate application of the cornerstone principle of proportionality.

Throughout this global crisis, the World Anti-Doping Agency (‘WADA’) has carefully monitored the situation, providing anti-doping organizations and athletes with updates and advice. On 6 May 2020, WADA issued the document called ‘ADO Guidance for Resuming Testing’ (‘COVID Guidance’). A COVID-19 ‘Q&A’ for athletes (‘Athlete Q&A’) is also available on WADA’s website, and has been last updated on 25 May 2020. This article focuses on these two latest documents, and analyses the solutions proposed therein, and their impact on athletes.

Like many public or private recommendations issued for other societal activities, the WADA COVID Guidance is primarily aimed at conducting doping control while limiting the risk of transmission of the virus and ensuing harm to individuals. More specifically, one can identify two situations of interest for athletes that are notified for testing:

  1. The athlete has or suspects that they may have been infected with COVID-19, or has come in close contact with someone having COVID-19;
  2. The athlete fears to be in touch with doping control personnel that may be infected with COVID-19.

Quite obviously, either situation has the potential to create significant challenges when it comes to balancing the interests of anti-doping, with individual rights and data protection concerns. This article summarises how the latest WADA COVID Guidance and Athlete Q&A address both situations. It explores how the solutions suggested fit in with the WADA regulatory framework and how these might be assessed from a legal perspective.

The focus will be on the hypothesis in which international sports federations – i.e. private entities usually organised as associations or similar structures – are asked to implement the COVID Guidance within their sport. National anti-doping organizations are strongly embedded in their national legal system and their status and obligations as public or semi-public organisations are likely to be much more dependent on the legislative landscape put in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in each country. Nevertheless, the general principles described in this article would apply to all anti-doping organizations alike, whether at international or national level. More...

(A)Political Games: A Critical History of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter - 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.


Since its inception, the Olympic Movement, and in particular the IOC, has tirelessly endeavored to create a clean bubble around sport events, protecting its hallowed grounds from any perceived impurities. Some of these perceived ‘contaminants’ have eventually been accepted as a necessary part of sport over time (e.g. professionalism in sport),[1] while others are still strictly shunned (e.g. political protest and manifestations) and new ones have gained importance over the years (e.g. protection of intellectual property rights). The IOC has adopted a variety of legal mechanisms and measures to defend this sanitized space.  For instance, the IOC has led massive efforts to protect its and its partners’ intellectual property rights through campaigns against ambush marketing (e.g. ‘clean venues’ and minimizing the athletes’ ability to represent their personal sponsors[2]). Nowadays, the idea of the clean bubble is further reinforced through the colossal security operations created to protect the Olympic sites.

Nevertheless, politics, and in particular political protest, has long been regarded as one of the greatest threats to this sanitized space. More recently, politics has resurfaced in the context of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Rule 50 Guidelines. Although Rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines stirred considerable criticism, to which Richard Pound personally responded, arguing that Rule 50 is a rule encouraging ‘mutual respect’ through ‘restraint’ with the aim of using sport ‘to bring people together’.[3] In this regard, the Olympic Charter aims to avoid ‘vengeance, especially misguided vengeance’. These statements seem to endorse a view that one’s expression of their political beliefs at the Games is something that will inherently divide people and damage ‘mutual respect’. Thus, the question naturally arises: can the world only get along if ‘politics, religion, race and sexual orientation are set aside’?[4] Should one’s politics, personal belief and identity be considered so unholy that they must be left at the doorstep of the Games in the name of depoliticization and of the protection of the Games’ sanitized bubble? Moreover, is it even possible to separate politics and sport?  

Even Richard Pound would likely agree that politics and sport are at least to a certain degree bound to be intermingled.[5] However, numerous commentators have gone further and expressed their skepticism to the view that athletes should be limited in their freedom of expression during the Games (see here, here and here). Overall, the arguments made by these commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy that while the Games are bathed in politics, athletes – though without their labor there would be no Games – are severely restrained in expressing their own political beliefs. Additionally, they often bring attention to how some of the most iconic moments in the Games history are those where athletes took a stand on a political issue, often stirring significant controversy at the time. Nevertheless, what has not been fully explored is the relationship between the Olympic Games and politics in terms of the divide between the ideals of international unity enshrined in the Olympic Charter and on the other hand the de facto embrace of country versus country competition in the Olympic Games. While the Olympic Charter frames the Games as ‘competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries’, the reality is far from this ideal.[6] Sport nationalism in this context can be considered as a form of politics because a country’s opportunity to host and perform well at the Games is frequently used to validate its global prowess and stature.

To explore this issue, this first blog will first take a historical approach by investigating the origins of political neutrality in sport followed by an examination of the clash between the ideal of political neutrality and the reality that politics permeate many facets of the Olympic Games. It will be argued that overall there has been a failure to separate politics and the Games but that this failure was inevitable and should not be automatically viewed negatively. The second blog will then dive into the Olympic Charter’s legal mechanisms that attempt to enforce political neutrality and minimize sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics. It will attempt to compare and contrast the IOC’s approach to political expression when exercised by the athletes with its treatment of widespread sport nationalism.More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – February 2020 - By Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 


The Headlines

Manchester City sanctioned by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play

Manchester City has been sanctioned under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations for two seasons for ‘overstating its sponsorship revenue in its accounts and in the break-even information’ it had provided UEFA. The February 14 decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) likely heralds the start of a long and bitter legal war between Manchester City and UEFA, which may end up settling many of the questions surrounding the legality of FFP rules. Since its introduction in 2010, the compatibility of FFP with EU law, especially in terms of free movement and competition law, has been a continued point of contention amongst the parties concerned and commentators (see discussion here, here and here). It was only a matter of time that a case would arise to test this issue and the present circumstances seem to indicate that this may go all the way.                                 

Regardless, the ban will not be enforced this season and in light of the appeal process, it is hard to predict when the CFCB’s decision will have any effect. Indeed, Manchester City has shown an incredible willingness to fighting this out in the courts and shows no signs of backing down. The next stop will be the CAS and perhaps followed by the Swiss Federal Tribunal. It should also be recalled that the CAS has already examined FFP in its Galatasaray award, where it found FFP compatible with EU law (see commentary here). There is even a decent chance that this emerging saga may end up in front of the European Commission and eventually the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Sun Yang CAS award published

After a much-anticipated public hearing, the Panel’s award in the Sun Yang case has finally been published, sanctioning Sun Yang with an eight-year period of ineligibility (see here for a detailed commentary). The decision does not reveal anything groundbreaking in terms of its legal reasoning and in many ways the case will most likely be remembered for its historical significance: the case that jumpstarted a new era of increased public hearings at the CAS.

Perhaps of some interest is the extent to which the panel took into account Sun Yang’s behavior during the proceedings in order to support its assessment of the case. For example, the panel describes how Sun Yang had ignored the procedural rules of the hearing by inviting ‘an unknown and unannounced person from the public gallery to join him at his table and act as an impromptu interpreter’. The Panel interpreted this as Sun Yang attempting ‘to take matters into his own hands’ which it found resembled the athlete’s behavior in the case (see para 358). The Panel also found it ‘striking’ that Sun Yang did not express any remorse concerning his actions during the proceedings. Since the proceedings were held publicly and have been recorded, it is possible to verify the Panel’s assessment in this regard.

In the end, it is possible that Sun Yang may seek to reduce the period of ineligibility once the 2021 WADA Code comes into force (see para 368). For now, Sung Yang may also try to appeal the award to the Swiss Federal Tribunal on procedural grounds, and has already indicated his wish to do so. More...

Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play? - Conference Report – 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

 On March 05, the T.M.C. Asser Institute hosted ‘Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play?’ a Multiplier Sporting Event organized in the framework of a European research project on ‘Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sports Diplomacy’. This project funded by the European Commission through its Erasmus+ program aims to help the EU adopt a strategic approach to sports diplomacy and to provide evidence of instances where sport can help amplify EU diplomatic messages and forge better relations with third countries. In particular, Antoine Duval from the Asser Institute is focusing on the role of EU sports diplomacy to strengthen human rights in the context of mega sporting events (MSE) both in Europe and abroad. To this end, he organized the two panels of the day focusing, on the one hand, on the ability of sport governing bodies (SGB) to leverage their diplomatic power to promote human rights, particularly in the context of MSEs and, on the other, on the EU’s role and capacity to strengthened human rights around MSEs. The following report summarizes the main points raised during the discussions. More...

Special Issue Call for Papers: Legal Aspects of Fantasy Sports - International Sports Law Journal

The International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) invites submissions to a special issue focusing on legal aspects of fantasy sports. For some time, fantasy sports has been a major phenomena in North America and this has been reflected in the sports law literature. Fantasy sports have more recently grown in popularity in the rest of world, raising a number of novel legal questions. The ISLJ wants to support fruitful global discussions about these questions through a special issue. We welcome contributions from different jurisdictions analyzing fantasy sports from the perspective of various areas of law including, but not limited to, intellectual property law, gambling law, and competition law.

Please submit proposed papers through the ISLJ submission system ( no later than November 15, 2020. Submissions should have a reccomended length of 8,000–12,000 words and be prepared in accordance with the ISLJ's house style guidelines ( All submissions will be subject to double-blind peer review.

Question about the special issue can be directed to the Editor–in-Chief, Johan Lindholm (

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – January 2020 - By Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 


The Headlines

IOC Athlete Commission releases its Rule 50 Guidelines for Tokyo 2020

The IOC Athlete Commission presented its Rule 50 Guidelines for Tokyo 2020 at its annual joint meeting with the IOC Executive Board. It comes as Thomas Bach had recently underlined the importance of political neutrality for the IOC and the Olympic Games in his New Year’s message. Generally, rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits any political and religious expression by athletes and their team during the Games, subject to certain exceptions. The Guidelines clarify that this includes the ‘field of play’, anywhere inside the Olympic Village, ‘during Olympic medal ceremonies’ and ‘during the Opening, Closing and other official ceremonies’. On the other hand, athletes may express their views ‘during press conferences and interview’, ‘at team meetings’ and ‘on digital or traditional media, or on other platforms. While rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines have reignited a debate on whether it could be considered as a justified restriction on one’s freedom of expression.


The IOC has made the case that it is defending the neutrality of sport and that the Olympics is an international forum that should help bring people together instead of focusing on divisions. Specifically, Richard Pound has recently made the argument that the Guidelines have been formulated by the athletes themselves and are a justified restriction on free expression with its basis in ‘mutual respect’. However, many commentators have expressed their skepticism to this view (see here, here and here) citing that politics and the Olympics are inherently mixed, that the IOC is heavily involved in politics, and that the Olympics has often served as the grounds for some of history’s most iconic political protests. All in all, the Guidelines have certainly been a catalyst for a discussion on the extent to which the Olympics can be considered neutral. It also further highlights a divide between athlete committees from within the Olympic Movement structures and other independent athlete representation groups (see Global Athlete and FIFPro’s statements on rule 50).


Doping and Corruption Allegations in Weightlifting 

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has found itself embroiled in a doping and corruption scandal after an ARD documentary was aired early in January which raised a wide array of allegations, including against the President of the IWF, Tamás Aján. The documentary also included hidden camera interviews from a Thai Olympic medalist who admits having taken anabolic steroids before having won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games and from a team doctor from the Moldovan national team who describes paying for clean doping tests. The IWF’s initial reaction to the documentary was hostile, describing the allegations as ‘insinuations, unfounded accusations and distorted information’ and ‘categorically denies the unsubstantiated’ accusations. It further claims that it has ‘immediately acted’ concerning the situation with the Thai athletes, and WADA has stated that it will follow up with the concerned actors. However, as the matter gained further attention in the main stream media and faced increasing criticism, the IWF moved to try to ‘restore’ its reputation. In practice, this means that Tamás Aján has ‘delegated a range of operation responsibilities’ to Ursual Papandrea, IWF Vice President, while ‘independent experts’ will conduct a review of the allegations made in the ARD documentary. Richard McLaren has been announced to lead the investigation and ‘is empowered to take whatever measures he sees fit to ensure each and every allegation is fully investigated and reported’. The IWF has also stated that it will open a whistleblower line to help aid the investigation.More...

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.More...

Free Event! Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play? - 5 March at the Asser Institute in The Hague

The upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and its links to human rights violations has been the subject of many debates in the media and beyond. In particular, the respect of migrant workers’ labour rights was at the forefront of much public criticisms directed against FIFA. Similarly, past Olympics in Rio, Sochi or Beijing have also been in the limelight for various human rights issues, such as the lack of freedom of the press, systematic discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or forced evictions. These controversies have led sports governing bodies (SGBs) to slowly embrace human rights as an integral part of their core values and policies. Leading to an increased expectation for SGBs to put their (private) diplomatic capital at the service of human rights by using their leverage vis-à-vis host countries of their mega-sporting events (MSEs). In turn, this also raises the question of the need for the EU to accompany this change by putting human rights at the heart of its own sports diplomacy.

Research collective 
This Multiplier Sporting Event, organised in the framework of the transnational project on ‘Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sports Diplomacy’ funded by the Erasmus + Programme, aims to trigger discussions on the role of an EU sports diplomacy in strengthening respect for human rights in the context of MSEs both at home and abroad. It will feature two roundtables focused on the one hand on the diplomatic power and capacity of SGBs to fend for human rights during MSEs and on the other on the EU’s integration of human rights considerations linked to MSEs in its own sports diplomacy.


13:20 – 14:00 – Welcome and opening speech –Antoine Duval (Asser Institute)
14:00 - 15:30 - Panel 1: Leveraging the Diplomatic Power of the Sports Governing Bodies for Human Rights

  • Lucy Amis (Unicef UK/Institute for Human Rights and Business)
  • Guido Battaglia (Centre for Sport and Human Rights)
  • Florian Kirschner (World Players Association/UNI Global Union)
  • Claire Jenkin (University of Hertfordshire)

15:30 – 16:00 - Coffee Break

16:00 - 17:30 - Panel 2: A Human Rights Dimension for the EU’s Sports Diplomacy?

  • Arnout Geeraert (Utrecht University)
  • Agata Dziarnowska (European Commission)
  • Alexandre Mestre (Sport and Citizenship)
  • Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (TBC)

17:30 - Reception

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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