By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU antitrust regulators sided on Friday with speed skaters seeking to compete in new money-spinning events as they ordered the sport's governing body ISU to scrap "disproportionately punitive" penalties aimed at stopping athletes from doing so.
The EU competition enforcer said the International Skating Union must stop the illegal conduct within 90 days or face fines up to 5 percent of its average daily worldwide turnover.
The ISU said in a statement it disagreed with the ruling and reserved its right to appeal before the European Courts.
The landmark decision could affect other sports and become as important a milestone as the 1995 court ruling involving Belgian soccer player Jean-Marc Bosman, which paved the way for the free movement of players in the EU.
The European Commission ruling was triggered by a complaint by Dutch Olympic speed skaters Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt after they were put off competing in lucrative Ice Derby events run by a South Korean company by threats of a lifetime ban.
The ISU said it had warned skaters against participating in the event in Dubai because of the organiser's "close links" to betting in Asia and the fact that it had refused to follow the governing body's code of ethics.
The antitrust regulator's decision could make it easier for unofficial and 'breakaway' events and competitions to be set up without the approval of a sport's governing body.
"The severe penalties the International Skating Union imposes on skaters also serve to protect its own commercial interests and prevent others from setting up their own events," European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.
The ISU defended its sanctions system, saying although it previously provided for lifetime bans for skaters participating in unauthorized competitions, no such ban had ever been imposed and that the regime had since been revised.
It added that the European Commission's decision put "commercial interests ahead of the principles of integrity, health, and safety that protect fair play in sport."
"The ISU eligibility rules have never been used to further the commercial interests of the ISU - a recognised not for profit organisation - or to block independent organizers," the ISU said.
"The ISU cannot accept the proposition that the ISU should allow skaters to compete in unauthorized events where their organizers refuse to adhere to the ISU's standards.
"Without the enforcement of these standards there is no safeguard for the protection of the health and safety of skaters and the integrity of the sport at these unauthorized events."
Reuters reported on Nov. 14 that the EU was set to act against the ISU.
(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Additional reporting by Simon Jennings; Editing by Ken Ferris)