I meant to tell you the Apathy Society cancelled its meeting due to lack of interest, but I couldn’t be bothered…
How many tens of thousands of man-hours have been expended thinking up new formats for the Olympics and WEG, only to end up not far from where we started?
In April, I spent four days travelling to Switzerland, sitting through the FEI sports forum debates on this huge topic, and writing it up for several publications. Multiply that by 270 other delegates, and that’s 1,350 days of collective effort, before you consider all the time put in by FEI executives, committees and stakeholder groups before and since.
Now, on the eve of the FEI General Assembly in Puerto Rico, the results of a further survey of all national federations (NFs) have been published, which by no means endorse the FEI’s Olympic format preferences. However, the FEI could easily argue that strongly articulated opposition to, say, separate contests in eventing for individuals and teams, is not the majority view.
This brings us to a truth that various movers and shakers sometime utter to me in private, but baulk from saying in public.
Only 47 (35%) of the 133 member NFs bothered to respond to the most important thing they will be asked about in the next four years, apart from re-electing a president. That’s 10 fewer than the nations represented at the April forum; just seven more than competed at London 2012; and 27 fewer than represented at WEG 2014. If you don’t have long-term international ambitions, why join a global federation?
Egypt was the only one of the 18 Middle East NFs who troubled to complete the survey. Egypt’s show jumpers really impressed in the Furusiyya final in Barcelona a few weeks ago. They have stepped up to the global stage and want to participate in shaping the direction of their sport, which can only be encouraging. The couldn’t- care-less attitude the rest of Group 7, mostly involved in endurance of course, is scarcely a surprise.
Worryingly, a NF response rate of around 35% comes up time and again whenever the FEI asks members their opinions, over and above waving the metaphorical voting card at the General Assembly.
I don’t go to many GAs, because it’s like Groundhog Day. The vast majority sit mutely through endless presentations. I can give you, right now, a pretty accurate idea of the few whose delegates are most likely to speak up: Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the Scandanavias, Greece, Turkey, India, South Africa and one or two from Latin America.
It’s not fair, of course, to suggest it’s all down to apathy. Some will abstain when a proposal has little relevance to their NF’s particular situation. Other NFs are so small and under-funded their staff are fully stretched running their national sports without worrying about the bigger picture. In the main, though, I think an awful lot haven’t a clue about what is being discussed.
The silent majority usually play safe and follow the recommendations of the FEI bureau. But shit can happen, as at the 2009 General Assembly in Copenhagen, where the daft let’s-reintroduce-bute idea was approved by 53.
After a public relations disaster and a backlash from vets etc., the FEI overturned the pro-bute vote, thereby acknowledging that its younger NFs aren’t sufficiently informed to take part in epic decisions. The 48 NFs opposed to tolerance of bute were, not surprisingly, virtually the same 35% whose administrators put in the thinking time, turn up at forums and return surveys even though their instinct is that nothing monumental will eventuate.
There was another instance of NFs losing the plot at the FEI EGM of April 2014, over the vote to allow a president three terms. Having established the principle, the same result should have been returned when the same vote was taken over bureau membership. Yet 12 fewer NFs voted in favour.
The FEI has, over the decades, welcomed innumerable fledging nations. This was borne partly out of genuine desire to grow horse sport, but also to convince the IOC that riding is an active pastime around the globe. In hindsight, some sort of “associate” tier might have been appropriate rather than giving such a huge body of the relatively uninformed or inactive NFs full blown voting rights.
Some, such as Palestine, Syria and Iraq, are trapped in conflict zones or suffer from constraints on horse movement, and thus can’t host FEI events. But other NFs field only a tiny handful of competing riders. According to the FEI database, Andorra, Antigua, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iceland, Malta and Nicaragua have all been FEI members since the 1990s, but none of them stage FEI shows, or field FEI riders and FEI accredited officials. They have exactly the same voting rights as Canada and the USA. Surely voting should be pro rata to the level of participation?
Mind you, confusion popped up in the Olympic/WEG survey, even when completed by more knowledgeable 35%. Maybe some questions were worded obliquely, but if a majority say they favour three-member teams with no drop score for ALL Olympic disciplines, how can the majority also want a drop score in both rounds of the team jumping, and oppose the idea two or three-member teams in dressage?
As for the most significant Olympic format proposals, most were opposed to running the individual before the teams. In dressage, proposals for much shorter tests were kicked into touch at the April forum and have now been withdrawn. Most, though, favour a new grand prix qualifier for all competitors, with team medals decided in a second test for the top six.
In eventing, a majority want cross-country to remain the second test. Had separate team and individual contests been accepted, respondents didn’t agree with team facing a lower degree of difficulty. Jumping and eventing both want stricter rider-eligibility criteria.
Endurance Reform? Dream On!
As widely anticipated, the proposals in the survey for a two-day WEG endurance ride were rejected, in favour of the classic 160km in a day. The FEI was keen to try a two-day, to make better use of expensive facilities, lure in more spectators, and hope the overnight break would encourage horse conservation and so avoid the awful pictures of exhaustion from WEG 2014.
But the FEI endurance committee is only too aware that expecting Group 7 to drop down a gear is hopeless.
This somewhat resigned state of mind was evidenced in its recent letter to all endurance officials, reminding them of the need for vigilance. The letter listed features of the modern sport – high market value for star-rated horses, pressure to qualify novices, the increase in average speeds – and remarked that these developments “are not necessarily bad for our sport.”
I am pretty sure this is also why, despite its potential for improving standards of horsemanship, the endurance committee continues to shy away from requiring riders and horses to qualify as a combination through the grades. Sheikh Hamdan won’t be the first or last endurance rider to win a gold medal on a horse he’d only ridden once before.
The big opening race of the UAE’s winter season had a completion rate of just 18%, with average speeds as high as ever. At the first major CEN, 21 yellow warning cards were handed out in a single day. What’s happened to that “legal agreement” about trying to do better?