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Equestrianism: FEI and the Global Champions League settle long-standing legal action over unsanctioned events

By Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland The international governing body of equestrian, the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale), has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Global Champions League (GCL) and the Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT) following protracted legal proceedings culminating in an appeal to the Brussels Court of Appeal in regard to the FEI’s Unsanctioned Events’ rules. The parties have agreed to work together and signed the MOU on 26 January 2017 (http://inside.fei.org/news/fei-and-global-champions-league-reach-agreement). The original MOU between the parties was signed in 2007. However, relations between the parties became strained, when the GCL contended that the FEI’s Unsanctioned Events’ rules were a breach of EU anti-trust provisions and made a complaint to the Belgian Competition Authority in June 2015. Under the FEI Rules, any athlete, horse or official, who had taken part in an unsanctioned FEI event in the previous six months, would be deemed ineligible to compete in a FEI or national event (Articles 113(4)-(6) of the FEI General Regulations, which were introduced in January 2013). An unsanctioned event was defined as an event that is not published in the FEI Calendar, nor is authorised by the National Federation (Press Release, “FEI Bureau agrees unanimously to take strong stance on GCL case”, 10 Nov. 2015, https://inside.fei.org/news/fei-bureau-agrees-unanimously-take-strong-stance-gcl-case). The Belgian Competition Authority made an interim measure on 28 July 2015, mandating that the FEI suspend its unsanctioned events rule in relation to riders and horses who had taken part in the GLC. The FEI appealed to the Brussels Court of Appeal, requesting an annulment of the decision of Belgian Competition Authority. The FEI contended, inter alia, that the decision of the Belgian Competition Authority was not applicable outside Belgium (Press Release, ibid.) The FEI made a very compelling argument on the grounds that there was a non-decision making party involved, the horse. The welfare of a non-decision making party distinguished the unsanctioned events rule from other situations, including the European Commission’s investigation into the compatibility of EU anti-trust provisions, namely Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), and the lifetime ban the International Skating Union (ISU) imposed on competitors who were involved in unsanctioned events. The FEI noted its intention to request to be a party to the case involving the ISU. In referring to the welfare of horses and the integrity of the sport, the FEI President Ingmar de Vos stated: “Horse welfare and sporting integrity are the two key principles of the unsanctioned events rule, and these principles can only be protected and promoted by putting in place rules, including anti-doping and veterinary regulations, and by making acceptance of international events onto the official calendar conditional upon the Organising Committee adopting all of those regulations and making them binding on all participants in those events. Without these rules, we have no way of safeguarding the welfare of horses and athletes participating in such events, or of protecting the integrity of the events” (Press Release, ibid.). On 27 November 2015, the FEI published a notice stating that Articles 113 (4) to (6) were suspended with regard to athletes and horses competing in the GCL (Press Release, Publication following a decision of the Belgian Competition Authority, 27 Nov. 2015, http://inside.fei.org/news/publication-following-decision-belgian-competition-authority). Thus “[n]o athlete or horse can be suspended or sanctioned because of their participation in a competition organised by the Global Champions League”. The suspension of the unsanctioned events rule would remain in place pending the outcome a decision by the Belgian Competition Authority or a decision of the Brussels Court of Appeal. However, in late April 2016, the Brussels Court of Appeal denied the appeal by the FEI in relation to the interim measure granted by the Belgian Competition Authority. Pending a full hearing of the case by the Belgian Competition Authority, the FEI President voiced her disappointment with the decision adding that it seemed to be contrary to EU Law: “This decision seems to be in direct contradiction to the investigation undertaken by the European Commission into similar cases, including this specific FEI case, with the stated aim of ensuring the coherent application of EU anti-trust rules” (Press Release, “Brussels Court denies FEI appeal in GCL case”, 28 Apr. 2016, http://inside.fei.org/news/brussels-court-denies-fei-appeal-gcl-case).   The Belgian Competition Authority had yet to come back with a final decision, in what would arguably have had huge ramifications for sports’ governing bodies and the application of the EU competition provisions in regard to ‘restraint of trade’; the GLC withdrew its complaint. A new MOU has been agreed and signed by the FEI, the GCL and the GCLT. The 2017 MOU replaces the 2007 MOU. Details in the announcement have been kept to a minimum on the websites of the FEI and GCL respectively.  In a joint statement by GCL Co-Founders Jan Tops and Frank McCourt, the GCL and GCLT “are pleased to have reached consensus with the FEI and appreciate the genuine efforts that have been made to achieve this agreement and resolve outstanding issues” (Press Release, “FEI and Global Champions League reach agreement”, 26 Jan. 2017, http://inside.fei.org/news/fei-and-global-champions-league-reach-agreement). Whilst not divulging much in the way of what has been agreed, the Press Release simply states: “The agreement includes FEI approval of the GCL rules, which are now in compliance with FEI rules” (Press Release, ibid.) FEI has approved the GCL 2017 rules, albeit with a few changes (“New Format for the Global Champions League”, 29 Jan. 2017, http://www.worldofshowjumping.com/LGCT-events/New-format-for-the-Global-Champions-League.html).  The is an incredibly lucrative event, which has €22 million on offer for competitors in the GCL and the GCLT (the GCLT consists of 30 of the world’s top showjumpers; for more detail see: https://www.globalchampionstour.com/about/). The GCL involves the coming together of the world’s top riders of different nationalities who compete on the same team with a maximum of twenty teams (Rule 1.1., Global Champions League, “Rules For the 2017 Global Champions League”, https://media.globalchampionsleague.com/files/season/rules/2017/rules_2017_01_28_11_33_33.pdf). Teams consist of four of five athletes and athletes are permitted to register for one team only (Rule 2.1.) Rule 2.2 provides that teams must register a minimum of two athletes, who were ranked of the Top 250 of the Longines FEI rankings as of 31 August 2016. In the past few days, the GLC has updated its rules to reflect the new MOU. In the 2017 GCL, riders will compete in fifteen venues around the world: beginning in Mexico City (from 6 to 9 April); Miami Beach (13 to 15 April); Shanghai (28 to 30 April); Madrid (18 to 21 May); Hamburg (24 to 28 May); Cannes (8 to 10 June); Monaco (23 to 25 June); Paris (30 June to 2 July); Cascais, Estoril in Portugal (6 to 8 July); Chantilly (13 to 16 July); Berlin (28 to 30 July); London (3 to 6 August); Valkenswaard in the Netherlands (10 to 13 August); Rome (21 to 24 September); and a final event in Doha, Qatar (9 to 11 November (https://www.globalchampionsleague.com/events/2017/). To quote Lord Denning MR in Enderby Town Football Club Ltd v Football Association Ltd [1971] Ch. 591, at 605: “justice can often be done in them [domestic tribunals] by a good layman than a bad lawyer”. This quote aptly sums up the situation involving the FEI and the GCL and the extra-judicial settlement of their dispute.  Little and Morris, however, note the benefits of seeking redress in the courts as judicial intervention embodies a “copper bottomed guarantee of ultimate justice for individual sportsmen embroiled in stormy long running (invariably disciplinary) disputes with their governing bodies” (Morris, P and Little, G, “Challenging Sports Bodies’ Determinations” (1998) 17 Civil Justice Quarterly 128–148, at 129). However, as the present case demonstrates, legal proceedings can be futile. In the end, the parties came to an agreement after almost two years of legal proceedings, when their dispute could have been resolved much sooner by using mediation, arbitration or negotiation!  
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