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UK tax laws repel top athletes

But this might be about to change.

Usain Bolt. Photograph: Getty Images

Hydration, shoes, sponsorship, training, diet… tax rules? The last item in that list will not have been weighing heavily on the minds of many runners in the London marathon last weekend.

They are, however rather more of a consideration for international athletes competing in UK pro-sports events. Thanks to current Treasury policy, entry could easily leave them seriously out of pocket.

The HMRC Foreign Entertainers Unit levies tax on foreign sportsmen and women not simply by reference to earnings made from the events they enter the UK to take part in, but also by looking at global sponsorship income.

At the highest levels of sport, the majority of annual earnings are in the form of such sponsorship arrangements. Sellers of training equipment, drinks, perfumes, watches — even broadband (thank you, Mr Branson) — want a sprinkling of top quality athletic shimmer to help shift their wares. The remuneration for many such favoured athletes makes some of their event winnings look positively mean by comparison.

The UK and US revenues are alone in plundering this branding income of international guests at their championships, matches, games, and competitions — with the result that participation in UK events can appear on stars’ books as a loss-making endeavour.

This policy has in recent years found many top athletes deciding against entering UK events. There is a difficult call to be made as to whether the reputational capital they accrue from appearing in UK events is worth the tax payable. The value a major sponsor may put on their man’s profile in the UK is often quite intangible; the prospect of a bill from HMRC running to tens, or even hundreds of thousands of pounds, is not.

This difficult decision has been averted, however, for two upcoming athletics meetings as after years of lobbying by the sports industry, the Treasury has at last issued a concession to their policy. Buried in the 629 pages of Finance Bill 2013 (only slightly down from last year’s record-breaking 686) lie two clauses that grant exemptions from income tax to accredited competitors at the 2013 Olympic Anniversary Games and 2014 Commonwealth Games. News that Usain Bolt will make his first non-Olympic UK appearance in four years indicates the concession is timely.

This year’s concession is stand-alone, but could augur wider change. The case has long been made that UK plc loses out from its current approach to international sport. The Treasury may see the arrival to our shores of itinerant stars as a cash cow to be milked, but the taxes raised are coming at the expense of more significant opportunities (including the 2010 Champions League final which went to Madrid instead).

The economic rally of Q3 last year demonstrated the value to the UK of hosting international sport. Stand-alone tax breaks encourage competitors to help make such events the international displays of expertise they should be. However, the fiscal atmosphere surrounding them remains tense and the UK could benefit hugely from a permanent softening of its policy.

Edward Keene is from private client law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP. This story first appeared on Spear's magazine