In seven days’ time, the FEI and stakeholders gather in Lausanne, Switzerland to debate the most significant shake-up ever of its elite sport.
It’s surprising there has been so little media attention thus far, because each discipline is set to undergo – at global championship level at least – remodelling as drastic as the axing of steeplechase, roads and tracks was to eventing in 2004. There is also a move to limit all teams to three with no drop score.
For the first time, the two-day FEI annual forum is adopting a single theme. The future of equestrianism in the Olympic movement is again at a crossroads (after 2020, Olympic hosts may decide which sports they stage, which means that those with no horse heritage may swiftly decide we are too niche and expensive to bother with) and there is a dire need to re-invent the World Equestrian Games. If both are to remain appealing to organisers, TV and sponsors, it makes sense to take a long, warts and all look at equestrianism’s “offer.”
Documents and consultation reports can be found here. These are the topics I suspect will keep me most busily taking notes in Lausanne. Drastic issues mean drastic solutions and there will be a fine line between evolution and the sort of revolution which in turn engenders a revolt.
- Reduction in length of Grand Prix dressage test: Proposals are all about making dressage less “boring” to the uninformed or those with the attention span of a grasshopper, with suggestions for more jazzed-up broadcast and a way to reduce the gaps between tests. However, while stakeholders are happy for bells and whistles to be attached to the freestyle, there is already robust resistance to the proposed shortening of the set Grand Prix test. The International Dressage Trainers Club and a working group of the European Equestrian Federation have separately weighed in and insist that the Grand Prix test must remain as a proof of correct training, and say that a “machine-gun volley” of movements squashed into a shorter time-frame poses horse welfare concerns.
- Teams of three and no drop score: Fewer riders per team means room at Olympics for more teams and so a wider spread of flags, which will please the IOC. The abandonment of the drop score also means that no-one will now receive a medal for failure, which I have always found rather odd as a concept. However, giving a medal to someone who has been eliminated or fallen-off must still be preferable to putting them under such pressure to complete when their horse is struggling. Where horse welfare is concerned, you can’t always apply “modern” thinking to sports.
- Differentiation between team and individual: In jumping and eventing, the idea is to split completely the team and individual contests, all of which will be shorter anyway, and in eventing for riders to choose to do one or the other, not both. Qualifications will be at three-star for teams and four-star for individuals, which, without the FEI actually saying so in print, reduces the chances of someone not consistent at that upper level and ranked, say, 238th in the world, ending up on the individual podium. The media may like stories about folk who get lucky on the day and have a dream result, but I can’t be the only person aware of slights from the wider media that equestrian is the only sport in which you can “buy” a medal. To be frank, they are not wrong.
- Scrapping of the four-horse finale in jumping: I have always enjoyed this spectacle of supreme horsemanship, but, alas, would be the first to agree it’s become obsolete. The high value of the horses, the random element – a bit like a penalty shoot-out in soccer – and the chance one’s horse might end up being ridden by one of the less competent nobodies alluded to above, means that the top riders just don’t want to do it anymore. The FEI will also wish to reduce the chances of, say, the world number one dropping out of the individual because he is, after the earlier Nations Cup rounds, no longer in with a shout. Especially when there is Global Champions Tour event a couple of weeks hence.
- Future of WEG: A survey by The Sports Consultancy revealed that no-one wants WEG to be dropped (they obviously did not ask me!) but it has recommend a major re-vamp in order for the four-yearly festival to survive. The FEI was able to distance itself from the spectator disasters in Normandy, but its advisors say the FEI must take greater “ownership” of logistics and organisation. Other recommendations include truncating events into a 9-10 day period, reductions in discipline formats, and, surprise, surprise, all venues accessible from one location, ideally on foot, so that spectators have the chance of attending several sports, the original point of lumping them altogether when WEG was launched in 1990. Due to Bromont’s compact site, the consultants reckon some changes could be trialled at the 2018 WEG. I would imagine, though, that suggestions of significantly fewer competitors at future WEGs would meet resistance from just about everyone other than their Organising Committees.
Anyone can comment about the proposals on the Forum’s own online forum. Alas, there are fewer posts than it seems, because it has been hijacked by the sort of spammer who wants to sell you pharmaceutical products.
By far the most numerous authentic posts at the time of writing are, ahem, all about endurance. The key change there is a proposal, from the FEI endurance committee, that the WEG championship ride becomes a two-day, 100km-per-day contest. The ambition is to re-establish the notion of partnership, so that the rider reads his horse and keeps enough fuel in the tank. It is clearly intended as an antidote to the lets-go-really-fast-on-a-horse-we-don’t-know-and-somehow-waggon-it-over-the-finish travesty allowed to develop in the UAE and sadly now spread elsewhere.
On that subject, it’s still business as usual in the UAE. Clearly the penny still hasn’t dropped about what has to be done before the Emiratis can return from FEI exile.
There were six rumoured equine deaths at their last national ride of the season 10 days ago. Yes, you read that right: six, a figure from sources 100 per cent reliable in the past. Such slaughter doesn’t even warrant a headline now. We are so conditioned to what Pierre Arnould so aptly described as the UAE’s “industry of cheating and death” that it will only be news the day the UAE stages a ride without killing anything.
Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi appears to be taking the lead in the reforms. At the first ride in Abu Dhabi after the UAE suspension was imposed five weeks ago, flyers were circulated showing the types of blinders now disallowed, duct-taped or otherwise.
In Dubai though, anything the ruling Maktoum family has done to effect change appears to be top secret.
They don’t quite seem to be entering into the spirit of the suspension, which among other things, limits the movement of UAE registered horses. However, horses owned by the Maktoum corporation, Al Aaasfa Overseas, are still competing in the rest of the world, with non-Emirati nationals having long-standing commercial tie-ups with Dubai.
Al Aaasfa Overseas is registered in the British Virgin Islands. With no legal UAE connection, there is nothing the FEI can do about it, though I get the impression that if there was, the bullish, new-look FEI would most certainly do it. New FEI secretary-general Sabrina Zeender also gave short shrift to a pro-UAE “petition” signed by many known UAE associates.
Al Aasfa Overseas are not the only ones not quite playing the game. We learned two weeks ago that the ownership of WEG silver medallist Laiza de Jalima was transferred from Sheik Al Qassimi to her Dutch rider, Marijke Visser mid-January, i.e., two months before the UAE ban. Yet this transfer has only this week been processed by the Dutch federation, meaning Visser is now free to compete Laiza at the European championships. I would have thought that if this horse, worth probably $1-million, had been generously gifted to the rider it would have been Big News and we would have heard about it at the time!