By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has waded into a dispute between two Dutch Olympic speed skaters and their sport's governing body, which has threatened them with lifetime bans if they take part in unauthorized events.
Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt complained to the EU's executive Commission last year about the threat by the International Skating Union (ISU) to bar athletes who compete in big-money Ice Derby events run by a South Korean firm.
The Commission said it launched an investigation on Monday into whether the union is breaking EU rules on free competition by preventing skaters from taking part in the Winter Olympics and the ISU World and European Championships if they enter non-ISU events.
"Great news. Thank you for listening to the voice of so many Athletes in this matter," tweeted Tuitert, the 2010 Olympic 1500m champion.
It is not the first time the EU has intervened over restrictions imposed on athletes. In 1995, the European Court of Justice effectively rewrote the rules on soccer transfers, handing much more power to players, in a landmark case involving Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman.
Explaining its decision to take up the speed skating case, the EU competition authority said lifetime bans may prevent rival organizers from entering the market or drive them out of business, violating the bloc's rules.
"Athletes can only compete at the highest level for a limited number of years, so there must be good reasons for preventing them to take part in events," European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.
The Commission can fine companies up to 10 percent of their global turnover for anti-competitive practices.
Lifetime bans, which exist in various sports, are the worst restrictions for an athlete, said Ben Van Rompuy, legal adviser for the two Dutch skaters.
"It means the end of an athlete's career. This is really about controlling what they do in their free time. There should be a good, objective reason for doing so, such as for safety reasons, not arbitrary reasons to foreclose the market," he said.
The Ice Derby events were shelved after the ISU modified its rules in January 2012. The sports body in a statement last year said it "was unable to cooperate in any activity relating to betting/gambling in sports and that the ISU will not sanction the proposed Ice Derby International Competitions."
(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)