Sportsmen and women compete in their respective sports for a variety of reasons including personal pride and financial reward. Access to participate in sports events is often controlled by sports governing bodies. Athletes denied entry to a particular competition often look to the law to remedy this denial of access.
In Deliège, the referring Belgian court asked the European Court of Justice to consider whether it is contrary to EU laws governing freedom to provide services to require professional or semi-professional athletes, or those wishing to become so, to be authorised by their federation in order to be able to compete in an international competition which does not involve national teams against each other.
The European Court acknowledged that the choice of criteria is based on a large number of considerations unconnected with the personal situation of any athlete, such as the nature, the organisation and the financing of the sport concerned. It continued that “it naturally falls to the bodies concerned…. to lay down appropriate rules and to make their selections in accordance with them”. This is because the governing bodies, in this case the Belgian Judo Federation, possess “the necessary knowledge and experience’ to exercise such judgement and that this is the arrangement normally adopted in most sporting disciplines”.
The Court considered that selection rules for high-profile international tournaments did not restrict access to the labour market. In doing so, it explained why rules “inherent in the conduct of an international high-level sports event” might not in law constitute restrictions of free movement even if they in fact involved some restrictive criteria being adopted. The Court considered it necessary to observe that the selection system was linked to “a large number of considerations unconnected with the personal situation of any athlete, such as the nature, the organisation and the financing of the sport concerned”. Since such regulation did not constitute a ‘restriction’ or ‘obstacle’, it was simply not within the scope of examination. A limit on the number of competitors that could be selected did not “in itself, as long as it derives from a need inherent in the organisation of such a competition, restrict the freedom to provide services”.