(CN) – Dealing a blow to a UK group fighting for tax exemption, the European Court of Justice refused Thursday to classify the card game contract bridge as a sport.
This morning’s ruling stems from a challenge by the English Bridge Union, an organizer of contract bridge tournaments in the UK. The bridge union charges players an entry fee to play in its tournaments, but Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs refused the group’s claim for a VAT refund, short for value-added tax.
Unlike the tax authorities of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, all of which treat duplicate bridge as a sport for the purposes of the VAT Directive, the UK aligned with Ireland and Sweden in saying that sports must have a significant element of physical activity for the purposes of the VAT Directive.
A tribunal hearing the bridge union’s appeal ultimately invited Europe’s highest court to weigh in on the issue, asking whether the high level of mental skills employed in the game of bridge rise to the level of sport.
The Luxembourg-based court answered in the negative Thursday, focusing on numerous objectives of the VAT directive, including its promotion of “services closely linked to sport.”
“Admittedly, … duplicate bridge involves, inter alia, logic, memory, planning and/or lateral thinking, and constitutes an activity beneficial to the mental and physical health of regular participants,” the ruling states. “However, even if they do prove beneficial to physical and mental health, activities of pure rest or relaxation are not covered by that provision. In those circumstances, the fact that an activity promotes physical and mental health is not, of itself, a sufficient element for it to be concluded that that activity is covered by the concept of ‘sport’ within the meaning of that same provision.”
The competitive nature of bridge alone is not enough to establish sport classification, the court found.
Indeed there is precedent holding that applicability of the VAT directive is not hinged on whether “the sporting activity be practised at a particular level, for example, at a professional level, or that the sporting activity at issue be practised in a particular way, namely in a regular or organised manner or in order to participate in sports competitions.”
Contextually as well, the court found, a reading of the directive “argues in favour of an interpretation that the concept of ‘sport’ appearing in that provision is limited to activities satisfying the ordinary meaning of the term ‘sport,’ characterised by a not negligible physical element, but not covering all activities that may, in one way or another, be associated with that concept.”
“It should be recalled,” the opinion continues, “that the objective of that [statutory] provision is to encourage certain activities in the general interest, namely, services closely linked to sport or physical education supplied by non-profit-making organisations to persons taking part in sport or physical education, and, therefore, that provision seeks to promote such participation by large sections of the population.”
Though the court rejected sport classification for bridge, it noted that this determination has no bearing on whether the game could warrant a VAT exemption under another provision of the directive involving cultural services.
The ruling Thursday comes after an adviser to the court, Advocate General Maciej Szpunar, issued a nonbinding opinion that recommended treating bridge as a sport for the purposes of the VAT directive.
Szpunar had noted that the International Olympic Committee also classified bridge as a sport in 1998, and that bridge will be even offered at the 2020 Olympic Games.
That June recommendation also included several references to the classification of chess as a sport by several respected bodies, including the International Olympic Committee.
“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,” he wrote. “Shooting or archery would spring to mind here.”
Szpunar focused additionally on the substantial changes in our understanding of the term sport since the first Olympic Games in Greece.
“Originally, when the term was introduced into the English language in the 14th century, ‘sport’ meant ‘leisure,’” he wrote. “Only later was it associated with physical activity to train the body according to fixed rules.”