EU Court Adviser Pushes to Classify Card Game as Sport

LUXEMBOURG (CN) – Stacking up the deck against the United Kingdom, an adviser to the EU’s high court said Thursday that the card game contract bridge should be considered a sport for the purposes of tax exemption.

“The fact that tournaments take place on an international stage and that the results of the game seem to be directly dependent on the skill and training invested in the activity … point in the direction of contract bridge being a sport,” Advocate General Maciej Szpunar wrote. “Considerable mental effort and training are necessary in order to compete in duplicate contract bridge.”

Szpunar, whose recommendation is not actually binding on the European Court of Justice, emphasized that the game is not one of chance and that chance indeed plays a relatively small role in gameplay.

The International Olympic Committee also classified bridge as a sport in 1998, according to the ruling, and bridge will be even offered at the 2020 Olympic Games.

Szpunar began focusing on the game’s status after the English Bridge Union, a national body that organizes contract bridge tournaments in the UK and charges players, made a VAT refund claim, short for value-added tax. The union charges players an entry fee to play in the tournaments it organizes and wanted to recover VAT that had been paid in that vein.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs refused the English Bridge Union’s claims, however, even though the tax authorities of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and the Netherlands all treat duplicate bridge as a sport for the purposes of the VAT Directive.

Aligning with Ireland and Sweden, which also do not treat bridge as a sport, the UK argued that sports must have a significant element of physical activity for the purposes of the VAT Directive.

To unravel this theory, however, Szpunar made several references to the classification of chess as a sport by several respected bodies, including the International Olympic Committee.

“I infer from this that an activity does not necessarily need to have a physical element in order for it to be accepted as a sport,” the 14-page opinion states. “This appears to me to be only logical. A mandatory physical element would ipso facto exclude a number of activities which are generally regarded as a sport, even though the physical element is more than marginal and the classification of which as a sport is beyond doubt. Shooting or archery would spring to mind here.”

Szpunar emphasized that the term “sport” is not defined in the VAT Directive, nor is there an all-encompassing definition of the term that would apply throughout the EU.

“The meaning of the term ‘sport’ has undergone substantial changes since the first Olympic Games in Greece in ancient times and the 21st century,” Szpunar wrote. “Originally, when the term was introduced into the English language in the 14th century, ‘sport’ meant ‘leisure.’ Only later was it associated with physical activity to train the body according to fixed rules.”

Though the physical-activity definition is widely endorsed, Szpunar said it “is by no means universal.”

“Indeed, the SportAccord International Federations’ Union, the International University Sports Federation and the International Olympic Committee expressly include mental sports or endorse activities without a physical element,” the opinion states.

Szpunar called chess “the best example in this respect.”

“Where a physical element is not necessary, sport is defined by competition and the fact that equipment is provided by not just one supplier – which excludes activities without a broad basis in civil society, such as commercial products in the market place, designed by firms for pure consumption (for instance video games),” the opinion continues.

Szpunar also focused on the cultural issues the question implicates.

“Sight should not be lost of the fact that many sports are regional in nature and not present throughout the EU,” the opinion states. “This is, for instance, the case with hurling in Ireland or with kumoterki in Poland. Also, some sports are more prevalent in some countries or regions than others. More British or French citizens participate in, say, rugby than Polish citizens. In a similar vein, it appears to me that contract bridge boasts a higher degree of participation in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the northern countries of the European Union than elsewhere. Regional perceptions should, therefore, enter into account when the term ‘sport’ is determined in an autonomous manner on an EU level.”

Various activities thus cannot overcome the hurdle to be considered a sport, the adviser opined.

“The definition necessarily excludes games of chance, as there is no relation between the effort invested and the outcome, and the tasks involved do not require any mental or physical skill,” Szpunar wrote.

“What does not appear to me to be compulsory is the presence of a certain physical element,” he added. “It is true that few non-physical activities will reach the definition of a sport as they need to be not purely recreational, must reach a certain level of acceptance and must have the characteristics and benefits associated with most physical sports, in so far as effects on mental fitness and wellbeing should be regarded as interchangeable with physical fitness and wellbeing.

“My proposed answer to the first question is, therefore, that among the characteristics an activity must exhibit in order for it to be a ‘sport’ within the meaning of Article 132(1)(m) of the VAT Directive, a not insignificant physical element which is material to its outcome is not necessary. It is sufficient that the activity has a significant mental element which is material to its outcome.”

Szpunar said “sport,” within the meaning of the VAT Directive, “needs to be understood as meaning the training of mental or physical fitness in a way that is generally beneficial to the health and the well-being of citizens, as otherwise it would not be consistent with the purpose of the [statutory] exemptions.”

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