(CN) – Europe’s top court rapped Germany on Thursday for not allowing foreign nationals to compete in athletic championships for the over-35 crowd.
In Germany an entity known as the DLV is the umbrella sports association for all federal-state level athletics, organizing national championships for seniors (those over 35), as well as youth athletes (those under 20) and youth athletes in the elite category.
Historically any EU citizen could participate in the championships if a German athletics association or athletics community had been backing them for at least one year, but the DLV changed the rules in June 2016, making it so that only German nationals received priority when athletes are selected to participate in national championships.
The switch quickly drew a challenge from Daniele Biffi, 47, an Italian-born amateur runner who has lived in Germany since 2003.
Biffi belongs to a Berlin club called TopFit, which attempted to register him for a series of races that would occur at the March 2017 senior indoor championship in Erfurt, Germany.
But for the nationality requirement, Biffi fulfilled all of the participation conditions. The DLV rejected his registration for the March races for a summer championship the DLV held in Zittau.
Noting that EU law explicitly mentions sports when stating that EU citizens have a right to reside in another member state without discrimination, a local court in Darmstadt asked the European Court of Justice to assess Biffi’s case.
The DLV offered two justifications for its foreign-national exclusion, but neither swayed the Third Chamber of the Luxembourg-based court.
“The argument that the public expects that the national champion of a country will have the nationality of that country does not systematically justify any restriction on the participation of non-nationals in the national championships,” the opinion states.
Likewise the court cut through the DLV’s claim that its rules in the elite-youth category must apply across the board.
“According to the DLV’s own contentions, it selects the best national athletes in order to participate in international championships only in the ‘elite’ category,” the opinion states.
In the senior category, however, any athlete belonging to a DLV-affiliated club like TopFit can participate in championships and register themselves, regardless of their nationality, so long as they fulfill the conditions governing performance.
“Thus, a national of a Member State other than the Federal Republic of Germany can become a European running champion in the senior category by competing for Germany,” the opinion states.
The ruling also notes that the DLV could still allow a non-national athlete to compete in the national championships by using heats or some other type of classification.
As such “the total non-admission of such an athlete to those championships on account of his nationality seems, in any event, to be disproportionate,” the court ruled.
When the German court rules on the case, according to the ruling, it must “examine whether there are other potential justifications to carry out that examination by taking into account the objective … of increased openness in competitions and the importance of integrating residents, in particular long-term residents, such as Mr. Biffi in the present case, in the host Member State.”
The court conceded “that the presence of one or several non-nationals in [an eight-lane race] is capable of preventing a national from winning the championship and of hindering the designation of the best nationals.”
“However, even in the context of such sports, the non-admission of non-nationals to the final must not go beyond what is necessary for achieving the aim pursued,” the ruling states. “In that regard, it is necessary to take into account the fact that, in the Member State at issue in the present case, it is not the case that that exclusion has existed for years in the senior category.”