You have to hand it to the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) for ramping up their engagement in the politics of their sport.
In recent weeks, the riders have influenced a U-turn in two unpopular FEI proposals. One is the reinstatement of the Table C from the World Equestrian Games (WEG) – an omission that would have been nearly as big a cultural shock as, say, dropping dressage from the three-day event.
The other is the FEI decision to not, after all, bring CSI entry fees in line worldwide. Many protested this would damage the horse industry in Europe where 90% of the world’s jumpers are bred and produced in a system reliant on a relatively inexpensive two- and three-star show calendar.
Often, when I mention the IJRC to people involved in the other disciplines, they wryly point out that as jumping is by far the richest, its riders have more vested interests to protect than most, plus the financial resources to pay professionals to do the lobbying for them. It’s also popularly reckoned that the FEI is more likely to listen to the jumpers than the other riders – because their sport is so rich.
There may be an element of truth in all that, but IJRC members haven’t left their very switched-on executive director Eleonora Ottaviani to do all the spade-work.
As we saw from their feisty meeting at Geneva in December the jumpers were not prepared to let the Olympic format changes go through without one last fight. They lost that particular battle; maybe that’s why they re-doubled efforts to protect the rest of their sport from change for change’s sake.
A few days after the Geneva meeting, some other disciplines appeared to be talking about joining forces with the jumpers, to approach the FEI about a partial reprieve from the most unpopular aspects of WEG and Olympic format reform.
But in the end, the IJRC alone sent a delegation to FEI HQ at Lausanne in March, for a frank five-hour discussion on numerous topics.
Before and since, IJRC members have continued writing letters, sending out regular media briefings, door-stepping decision-makers and actively using social media to promote their views. Big names including Steve Guerdat and Ludger Beerbaum made mini vlogs about the far-from-harmonious “harmonisation” of CSI entry fees. Other stakeholders objected to harmonisation too, of course, but don’t under-estimate the IJRC in pulling the arguments together.
Quite often, there is a lot of very public debate in the build-up to the FEI Sports Forum (April 10-11). The day after the Forum, it usually seems to stop, on the outside anyway, as people go back to riding their horses and leave FEI committees to digest what they have heard.
Not this time. Since the Forum, the IJRC has circulated yet another briefing document on a variety of hot topics – in their Dossier Argo.
This whopping piece of work clearly was not thrown together in an afternoon. It also contains a major piece of research about athlete representation in the decision-making process of numerous other sports – compared to which the ratio in FEI sports looks pretty meagre.
As for the jumpers’ “wins” so far, “harmonisation” of entry fees has now been dropped. This was originally promoted by the Alliance of Jumping Organisers, but picked up by the FEI. The FEI now agrees it could not work worldwide. In fact, there was so much antipathy to “harmonisation” that halfway through the Forum some FEI officers started referring to it as “standardisation” instead, in an attempt to calm things down.
The other major “win” is the Table C reinstatement for WEG. The WEG jumping format was originally to axe two components – the final-four horse-swap (which most agree has reached its sell-by date), but also the speed leg on the opening day (to which most were vehemently opposed). I don’t recall seeing any kind of media announcement about this significant reversal of an ostensibly binding decision of the 2016 FEI General Assembly. FEI president Ingmar de Vos did, though, flag up the Table C issue in his opening remarks at the Forum.
It just goes to show nothing is irrevocably “final.” On that note, I wish the eventing community could yet mount a challenge to the least popular WEG change for their sport unless, of course, the many who have told me privately they despair about its down-grading to three-star don’t actually mean what they say.
The rationale was to bring WEG in line with the officially dumbed-down Olympic cross-country, for the IOC stipulates athletes must qualify at a standard no higher than the Games itself (as if it’s somehow the norm for the Olympics to be the lesser test).
In public, at least, most people seem resigned to it, though notable exceptions include British WEG 2014 team member Harry Meade. His Horse & Hound column is behind a pay-wall, but the gist is that he suggests the eventing Nations Cups (at three-star level) should replace the WEG as one of the qualifying mechanisms for Olympics.
Harry says this is mutually beneficial. First, it would enable the WEG to remain at four-star, so that eventing at least retains one medal event worthy of the championship moniker. Second, it would inject life into the moribund eventing Nations Cup, a series still unsponsored after five years, but which the FEI seems determined to sustain despite the hit and miss involvement of the leading players. The opening leg of the 2017 season in Montelibretti, Italy, was recently cancelled due to lack of team entries. But clearly national teams would flock to such a series given the incentive an Olympic ticket.
I wonder if anything will come of Harry’s idea? As the jumpers have shown so effectively, you don’t get if you don’t ask.