Daniele Biffi is a German athletics champion — despite being an Italian citizen. Stopped in his tracks by a rule change banning non-Germans from competing in national events, he wants the ECJ to help let him run again.Daniele Biffi (pictured above, left) runs fast. The 46-year-old is one of the best indoor track athletes in the senior class, not just in Germany but internationally. He has sprinted his way to the German national title eight times and would love to claim another gold medal. But he can't. Since 2016 he has been barred from competing.
Biffi is no longer allowed to become the German champion because he is, in fact, Italian. He has lived in Berlin for the past 16 years and has been registered as an athlete in Germany since 2012. But he still has an Italian passport. For four years he competed at national and international championships without any issues. Then the Deutscher Leichtathletik Verband (DLV – German Athletics Association) changed their rules.
Athletes without German citizenship are no longer allowed to properly compete in national competitions. The news came as a shock to Biffi. "When I understood I really would not be able to run in German championships I was absolutely furious," he told DW. "Athletics is not just a part of my job as a personal trainer, it also really is my passion."
Reasons for the rule change
In a document identifying the rule changes, the DLV gave several reasons, including not disadvantaging German citizens, and that it is sometimes difficult to obtain the correct date of birth for foreign athletes or to know if athletes are also competing in their own countries.
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But for Biffi the reasons did not add up. "I train exactly for such competitions. It's fun. It's a huge part of my life. For them to say, 'you can't come,' I could hardly accept it." By his reckoning, an estimated further 50 senior athletes in Germany could be affected, along with those in other age categories.
"The real scandal is the discrimination"
His lawyer Gerald Kornisch, who is a member of the same athletics association, also saw problems in the DLV's position. In an interview with DW, he argued the DLV, as an umbrella organization, should not be allowed to treat individual members differently based on their nationality.
"The real scandal is the discrimination," he said. "It's really about whether the DLV leadership is allowed to give or take away the rights and privileges of sports associations or individual members on a whim, however they like."
The DLV denies their decision has anything to do with discrimination.
Back and forth between courts
Biffi and Kornisch have taken the DLV to the district court in Darmstadt, where the organization has its headquarters, to have its rules overturned on the basis of discrimination. They argue that as European citizens are granted equal rights under law, the DLV's rule change should not stand.
The court in Darmstadt has asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to give its opinion on whether the case represents discrimination under the relevant European law before it makes its own decision.
On Thursday the ECJ will hear the opinion of an advocate general on whether the DLV's position does infringe upon EU anti-discrimination laws. Taking that opinion into account, the ECJ will come to its own decision later in the year before passing the case back to Darmstadt.
"Wide-ranging consequences" – if Biffi is successful
If Biffi is ultimately successful, the case could have a significant repercussions on amateur athletics in the EU. Professor Dr. Martin Nolte, the head of the Institute for Sport Law at the German Sport University in Cologne, told DW it could open the doors for athletes to easily compete wherever they wish.
"That would have wide-ranging consequences for sporting association guidelines that permit limits on who is allowed to compete," he said. "It could have the curious consequence, if you were to allow it, that one person could become a 10-time national champion in 10 different countries."
However, Nolte said it was far from certain that the ECJ would find the DLV's rules stopping foreigners competing at German championships against EU law.
"The ECJ has always granted sporting organizations a little more leeway in their rulemaking and has said it is permissible to consider citizenship."
Silver lining for Biffi
Despite their being a long way to go Biffi is remaining postive.
"I always to try find the silver lining in everything. What's the positive here? Ever since I was shut out, I have had more motivation to train. In the last two years my performance has definitely gotten better."