Former Olympic champion Mark Tuitert is one of those who appealed ©Getty Images

International Skating Union (ISU) officials claim to be "surprised" by a European Union ruling that bans on athletes who take part in unauthorised events are in breach of the bloc's anti-trust rules.

The ISU have warned they will suspend competitors who participate in unsanctioned competitions such as the Ice Derby, a series of lucrative events run by South Korean firm Icederby International, from taking part at Winter Olympic Games and World and European Championships.

The European Commission published a "preliminary view" today after a year-long investigation following complaints by two Dutchmen, Vancouver 2010 Olympic 1,500 metres gold medallist Mark Tuitert and 2014 world champion Niels Kerstholt.

It was claimed such a rule restricts athletes' commercial freedom and prevents new entrants from organising alternative international speed skating events.

"International sports governing bodies play a unique role in setting the rules of the game and ensuring standards of conduct," said EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

"They are responsible for both the health and safety of athletes and for the integrity of competitions. 

"We have concerns that the penalties the ISU imposes on skaters through its eligibility rules are not aimed at preserving high standards in sport but rather serve to maintain the ISU's control over speed skating. 

"The ISU now has the opportunity to reply to our concerns."

This verdict was welcomed by the two skaters and by their legal adviser, Ben van Rompuy.

He insisted that "sports federations cannot abuse that regulatory role to block or restrict, without any valid justification, other operators from organising sports events and athletes from pursuing much-needed economic opportunities".

Niels Kerstholt pictured competing at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Niels Kerstholt pictured competing at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games ©Getty Images

The Swiss-based ISU, however, claim the finding is based on a "misplaced understanding of the governance structure of sport and the Olympic Movement".

"The European Union’s founding Treaty as well as the EU institutions have long recognised the autonomous governance structure of sport as being essential to the protection of the integrity, safety and health in sport," they declared in a statement.

"These rules benefit sports organisers, sportspersons and spectators.

"It appears then that the European Commission has failed to take adequate account of the importance of the legitimate objectives pursued by the ISU’s eligibility rules. 

"A neo-liberal and deregulated approach to sport could destroy the Olympic values underpinning sport. 

"The ISU will show that the specific nature of sports governance as applied in its rules is perfectly compliant with EU competition law."

It is possible other sports could also be affected by this judgement.

International Basketball Federation Europe expelled eight nations from EuroBasket 2017 in April, for instance, due to their link with the unsanctioned Euroleague - currently the continent's premier club competition. 

The world governing body had ruled that any Federation that backed the Euroleague - run by Euroleague Commercial Assets - would automatically lose the right to participate in senior men's national team competitions.

Both sides have complained to the European Commission, although those countries banned are now expected to play at major tournaments.