The marathon debates in Lausanne earlier this week, into the remodelling of equestrian sports for our survival in the OIympic movement, were stimulating and enjoyable.
But now that I have slept on it for a few nights, too much of the discussions at the FEI Sports Forum seemed like change for change’s sake.
FEI technical committees have spent months assiduously trying to make horse sport understandable for Joe Public, but more than a bit of tweaking is being required to provide snappy, self-contained entertainments for TV and social media.
The future Olympic format, with WEGs and continental championships following suit, could see:
- Teams of three – to admit more nations within the rigid Olympic quota of 200 athletes
- No drop score – to foster “drama” and make scoring easier, with complementary use of apps and graphics etc.
- Fewer competitive efforts per medal, and totally separate individual/team contests, with eventers participating only in one or the other
- Teams qualifying at three-star and individuals at four, which admits that the very best are not necessarily represented; dumbing-down in anyone’s language
- The emasculation of the Grand Prix dressage test
The trouble with two-day fests of information-overload like Lausanne is that the relentless assault on your brain cells leaves no time to assess the pros and cons of X before Y and Z piles on top.
What worries me and, I imagine, the couple of hundred others also now experiencing the same retrospection, is this: our championship formats evolved and have stood the test of time precisely because they reflect the skill, patience and dedication in training a horse to the highest level. They are deliberately structured to reward accumulative effort over several days and/or rounds because this demonstrates consistency and gives the very best riders a chance to fix the odd glitch. And in our sport alone, the facility to come back into contention after a glitch is acceptable and correct because 50 per cent of our athletic partnership doesn’t realise that the Olympics isn’t just another show. Our duty of care towards the horse comes first, and we mustn’t make him a fool.
There is always an element of luck, but contrived, direct-medal winning formats will over-emphasise luck. We heard a lot about the Olympics needing “drama and excitement.” In providing the conditions for 30-second YouTube moments, we also foster the conditions to crown a champion undeserving of the title, not to mention unwanted unedifying footage of struggling riders who don’t really have any business being at the Olympic Games.
What I have just written is hardly new or profound, but was so easy to lose sight of it in Lausanne It was not until Monday afternoon that Monica Theoderescu articulated this fundamental flaw: “We are hearing a lot about ‘core values,’ but what are the core values? They are things which are not measurable. Sport is moving forward but a horse is still a horse, with four legs and a head and a tail!”
Delegates were assured the FEI wasn’t looking at change for the sake of change. President Ingmar de Vos said the FEI must be proactive, having been criticised for reactivity in the past. Guiseppe Della Chiesa, eventing committee chair, added that “we need ideas before the gun comes.” John Madden, FEI 1st vice president and chair of jumping, warned: “There are federations waiting in line and hiring PR consultants to change their sports so that they can get into the Olympics. That’s the reality, folks.”
In hindsight, were delegates subtly brainwashed about the urgency for change, before the horse stuff-proper got underway? Monday morning kicked off with a senior bod explaining how IMD, the business management school hosting the forum, helps corporations through uncomfortable transitions. Equestrian doesn’t want to be like Kodak, who went bankrupt because they refused to adapt to digital. Look at YouTube, he said. It didn’t exist 10 years ago, now it’s in everyone’s lives.
Then we heard about the WEG re-vamp, with leaner, fitter competitions to justify the huge expense for OCs. WEG 2014 attracted three times as many partner contracts as organisers expected, yet still cost 77.9m Euros against revenue of 39.4m. The regional authority of Normandy covered the shortfall, making cost a “difficult conversation” with future hosts.
A survey by The Sports Consultancy concluded that many people found dressage boring (hard to square with the sell-outs anywhere Valegro appears). A formidable panel of European Broadcasting Union and other TV gurus wanted easier-to-follow sports, with the WEG truncated into nine to 10 days.
Kit McConnell, sports director of the International Olympic Committee, explained Agenda 2020, the new event-based thinking and how all Olympic sports, while retaining the aforementioned “core values,” must embrace “universality” and “engage” (I really hate these expressions, so beloved of marketeers) with lots of new sectors and especially Youth.
The sports then came under scrutiny, one by one. Dressage, first up, seemed accepting of teams of three – they had this in London, after all, and riders and trainers had already expended much of their pre-forum energies heading off the equally controversial proposal to condense the Grand Prix to a “machine gun volley” of movements, surely welfare averse?
Frank Kempermann, FEI dressage chair, liked the idea that a Grand Prix with fewer and/or no repeated movements would hammer the big names for any errors and thus “mix up” the medals. (Do other sports want or expect their in-form combinations not to win the Olympics, then?) Three-time Olympic champion Anky Van Grunsven replied: “You cannot do a good Grand Prix in three minutes. If it’s of high quality, six minutes is not a long time to have to look at it,” she said.
But jumping and eventing were deeply unhappy about no drop score.
USEF’s Will Connell requested that broadcasters accept some traditions are not “sexy,” and instead concentrate on the aspects that are. Kit McConnell hadn’t expressly defined universality as lots of flags. And even if he had, equestrian had 6.66 countries represented, per available gold medal, two more than athletics, Will calculated, so wasn’t doing so badly. The IOC man in fact described universality as “not just about participation. It is about how many people are engaging by watching, and media and social platforms, all part of the global view.”
The German contingent – Sonke Lauterbach, federation chief executive, Otto Becker, jumping team chef, and Hanfried Haring, president of the European federation – hinted that the FEI stand up to the IOC a bit more, and remind the IOC hat equestrian has already done to be accommodating. Sonke said: “We have a well-functioning eventing format. Maybe I was asleep, but I did not hear [from Kit McConnell] that we are forced to separate the team and individual completely.” I went back over my notes and Sonke was, of course, right.
The prime concern of no drop score is, of course, welfare, and the unfair pressure to keep going when a horse is struggling. Hard on its heels was the dilution of excellence if even more top combinations stay at home than already do, so that a lesser nation gets their moment in the sun.
David Holmes, incoming chief executive of British Eventing, enquired about the relationship between universality and risk management, though McConnell’s answer was brief, something about this always being at the forefront of discussions with the FEI over qualification criteria.
US jumping chef d’equipe Robert Ridland said young riders and owners could lose out. “If your first rider is eliminated, the other two have their Olympic hopes dashed, and that’s against the Olympic spirit,” he said. “If, at the highest level, the focus is on only three we could have a trickle-down effect as owners start to realise there is a 25 per cent less chance to participate.
“Our [the USA’s] top three were all veterans in WEG and London 2012. I can see the youngest riders not being part of the process. Chefs would become more cautious when picking teams, and the average age will mostly increase.”
One option for team jumping was five seeded heats, with only the top two from each through to the next round. It would, said Madden, produce a result every half hour for TV. Lauterbach noted it would certainly be a “point of drama” if leading nations crashed out through an unlucky early “miss,” when their core national funding relates to Games results. Haring added: “If your first rider has two down, your team could be out. Professionals will have to explain on TV why the French, German, Dutch and British etc. are not going in the second round. Please consider this.”
The International Event Riders Association has, fortuitously, an especially deep-thinker as its president, British-based Kiwi Bruce Haskell. He has clearly spent weeks poring over the proposals, talking to his peer group and preparing written responses. He spoke forcefully about the sanctity of cross-country and the traditional CCI order, with jumping last.
In trying to “think outside the box” and accommodate event riders in both team and individual, alternative proposals created problems as well as solving them. The European federation suggested two short CICs, at the very start and very end of the Olympic fortnight, so that horses could have a rest and contest both. But, er, isn’t this the equivalent of the Olympic sprint being reduced to 60m? Delegates asked for examples of other summer Olympic sports that had undertaken drastic re-vamps, though none were forthcoming.
German team coach Christopher Bartle pre-submitted a CCI proposal with an eight to nine-minute 3* cross-country for team contenders, followed by a hold and then a five-minute 4* test for those also in the individual. This was a considered response from proper horseman, but would surely result in even more of a jumble for live broadcast than the one eventing is already perceived to have.
The 23-rider quota proposed for the eventing individual might backfire, with “mostly British or German or Australian,” leading to only 14 flags overall compared with 20 at Hong Kong.
Eventually, it was agreed that the role of reserve horses must now be studied in detail. The small media presence met De Vos afterwards, hearing that the work on refining new formats would recommence next day. There was no way De Vos will let it stall until the General Assembly in Puerto Rico this November.
The FEI head-honchos kept assuring that nothing is set in stone. But either the IOC has put the FEI under more pressure to turn horse sport on its head than the FEI has let on, or the FEI has somehow convinced itself this is how it must be. Either way, too many of the unintended consequences were not properly thrashed through in prep for this forum. And either way, we face a rocky ride through Tokyo and beyond.
You can find all the proposals and working documents here.
Read also this Jimmy Wofford wrote it seven years ago but it’s doing the rounds again, and was never more relevant. Jim tells me he will be posting an updated version soon.