06:54, October 26 320 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-26 06:54:03
Not the real deal: EU court rejects claim that bridge is a sport

It has been the subject of many a heated barroom argument, often among those gathered by the dartboard or pool table nursing a pint: what exactly is a sport? Now, after months of contemplation, the European court of justice has offered its take.

In response to a legal claim by the English Bridge Union (EBU) for sports status for its card game, judges in the Luxembourg court have ruled that a sport must involve “a not negligible physical element”, or at least it should for tax purposes. The EBU has been seeking the VAT exemption given to sports-classified events on the entry fees to its competitions, something denied to them by HMRC.

While bridge “involves logic, memory and planning, and may constitute an activity beneficial to the mental and physical health of regular participants”, it is not an actual sport, the judges ruled on Thursday. “The court concludes that an activity such as duplicate bridge, which is characterised by a physical element that appears to be negligible, is not covered by the concept of ‘sport’”, they said.

The ruling deals a considerable blow to the EBU, which had been heartened by a recommendation in June by the court’s advocate general, Maciej Szpunar. He had recommended that sport should be understood as something that involved the “training of mental or physical fitness in a way that is generally beneficial to the health and wellbeing of citizens”.

Szpunar appeared convinced by the argument that bridge – a card game played by four players split into two teams – helps stimulate the mind, particularly in older people.

He had also noted that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was among the organisations that “expressly include mental sports or endorse activities without a physical element”. The IOC classified bridge as a sport in 1998.

However, no matter the mental benefits of the game, the Luxembourg court did not take Szpunar’s advice and insisted in its ruling that “activities of pure rest or relaxation” could not be regarded as sport, and that this was clear from the everyday use of the term.

Some hope was given to the EBU, however. The judges ruled the game may have an argument in favour of VAT exemption on the basis that it is a vital part of British culture: “If the activity, in the light of the way in which it is practised, its history and the traditions to which it belongs, holds such a place in the social and cultural heritage of a country that it may be regarded as forming part of its culture.”

The EBU said in a statement that VAT exemption would have made the game cheaper and more accessible, and that it had hoped for a “six-figure rebate” to reinvest in the game. It said the decision came as “a surprise, and a disappointment”.

Opinions on whether bridge is a sport have varied over time and from nation to nation. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark and France it is classed as a sport for tax purposes, while in Ireland and Sweden it is not.

The UK’s 2011 Charities Act adopted a definition of sport as “activities which promote health involving physical or mental health or exertion”, which specifically included “mind sports”.

Yet in 2015 the high court ruled that bridge was not a sport eligible for lottery funding. Lawyers acting for Sport England successfully argued to the court that the game was no more a sport than “sitting at home reading a book”.

The long-running bridge case started when the EBU made an application for repayment of tax under the VAT directive, arguing it should have benefited from the exemptions allowed “in respect of the supply of certain services closely linked to sport or physical education”.

The HMRC rejected the application, claiming there was not enough physical exertion in bridge for such a classification.

The EBU lodged an action against the decision of the tax authority, which was rejected. But on appeal, the upper tribunal (tax and chancery chamber), said bridge involved the use of high-level mental skills, and asked the court of justice to give its guidance on the simple, but often asked question: “What are the essential characteristics which an activity must exhibit in order for it to be a ‘sport’?” Now we know.