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Usain Bolt Bolts from British Competition

  • Catherine Drew

Usain Bolt (file photo)

The Jamaican Olympic champion dubbed the fastest man on earth says he won't race in Britain until tax laws are changed. Before a back injury forced Usain Bolt to retire from competition for this year, he said tax laws had him rule out competing at a key London track event. Now UK Athletics and others, including the organizers of the London Marathon and the All England Club which hosts Wimbledon, are calling for changes in the law amid fears current legislation will keep big names from British events and possibily imperil the events themselves.

Athletes training in North London hope to be future competitors, both here and abroad.

Many hope to follow in the footsteps of Olympic and World Champion Usain Bolt.

But Bolt's decision not to race at the Aviva London Grand Prix in mid-August highlighted a possible impediment for professional athletes visiting Britain. His decision had to do with taxes levied on sportsmen and women visiting Britain.

Tax attorney Francesca Lagerberg explains the law. "There was a tax case to do with the famous tennis player Andre Agassi, and in his prime, he was a test case in the United Kingdom and it was all about whether his sponsorship income, he had a massive sponsorship from Nike, whether his sponsorship income when he played in the UK, at Wimbledom, whether it could be taxed in the UK. And what the courts said was yes, not only could they tax it, they could take a huge amount of that sponsorship income into the UK tax net," Lagerberg said.

The so-called "Agassi tax rule" of 2006 is fueling criticism. Organizers of major sporting events, including Wimbledon, the London Marathon and golf's Ryder's cup are lobbying the British government to change the law.

Some events, like the 2012 London Olympics, have already been exempted from the Agassi rules.

Nick Bitel, head of the London Marathon, is leading the effort to permanently change the law. "There are cases in tennis where players won't play the Egon Championships, in women's case Eastbourne or other tournaments because it doesn't pay them to do it because of the tax regime," he said.

The British Treasury would not comment on the case of Usain Bolt. But in a statement, it said it is fair to tax athletes on sponsorship earnings linked to their UK appearances.

At the Lee Valley Athletics Centre in North London, aspiring athletes were sympathetic to calls for a change in the rules.

"To be the best, you want to run against the best, so you need to experience running against Usain Bolt and people like that," said one athlete.

"I think there has to be a change in the law. The UK has already got special compensation to hold the Olympics so to hold any major sporting event it's going to keep causing trouble in the future," said another.

Recently, a government agency called Visit Britain revealed that foreign sports fans and players spend over $3 billion a year in Britain. In 2008, that amounted to about 14 per cent of all visitor spending.

Opponents of the Agassi law say unless it is changed, British athletes will miss out on chances to compete with the world's elite on home soil, and Britain's reputation as a sporting destination could be at risk.