In a long career you can’t remember every news story you ever wrote. However, one from the early 1990s sticks in my mind because it involved a conversation with Jacques Chirac, and it’s not often that a humble equestrian journalist gets her call put through to one of the most famous statesmen of his generation.
At the time M Chirac was the long-standing mayor of Paris. The reason I telephoned his office was because Paris had been awarded hosting rights for the 1994 World Equestrian Games, yet everything had gone awfully quiet aside from growing rumour there was no financial backing after all from the French capital….
Anyway, the gist is that when I explained I was asking about the Jeux Mondiales Equestre his immediate reaction was “what JEM?” Not only was M Chirac unaware of the notion of a WEG, JEM or anything else answering to that description, he was even more surprised to learn this enormous spectacle, at a time of year when Paris is already chock full of tourists, was supposedly being staged on his patch in three years’ time.
I can’t remember without looking it up exactly how the French bid unravelled thereafter, but 1994 ended up in The Hague, and I am pretty sure that if The Hague had been the first ever WEG the concept would have been trashed straight away.
Anyway, I had a strange sense of déjà vu reading recent coverage of the resignations of the five senior members of the Bromont JEM organising committee. A number of media had some of the departees blaming federal government for not coming up with an expected $8-9 million funding, claiming this in turn caused a loss of confidence in any other potential investors.
No one, though, seemed to have got the federal government’s point of view. It now seems neither Bromont, nor the FEI definitely said there was confirmed support from Ottawa at the time of the bid, but there is certainly an inference it had been promised soon after. So had Ottawa reneged on any deal? And if not, what might they have said to Bromont that could possibly have been interpreted as even a gesture of moral support?
I couldn’t spot anyone else asking Ottawa to comment, so decided to give it a whirl myself. Suffice to say the office of the Hon Carla Qualtrough, minister for sport and people with disabilities, responded promptly. They were emphatic neither the previous or current government had “at any time” offered a droplet of support to Bromont. This invited more questions, asking the Minister to surmise why Bromont thought there would be support, and how often had they had discussions.
Again, a prompt reply from the Minister: she has been in post since October 2015 obviously, when the new government took office, but met COJEM for the first time only on March 7th. On that occasion she asked for the business plan in order to process COJEM’s request for funding – which suggests such request has only been made pretty recently. As of last week, the last time I had contact with Ottawa, this information was still awaited by them. Why Bromont had assumed there might be support, her office added testily, I would have to ask them.
So then I decided to put what Ottawa had told me to the FEI and Bromont. Unlike the Minister, neither answered exactly the questions actually asked.
It now transpires that when announcing Bromont had won the bid in 2014, https://www.fei.org/news/fei-bureau-allocates-fei-world-equestrian-games%E2%84%A2-2018-canada the final sentence of the FEI’s press release that “confirmation that the Canadian bid committee had subsequently secured substantial government backing was a crucial element in today’s decision” in fact referred to support from just the municipality of Bromont and the province of Quebec, and specifically excluded Ottawa.
I then asked the FEI: “I have been told that for Bromont the FEI requirement for confirmed federal support was waived. Is this true, and if so, why did the FEI decide to do that?” The FEI’s written reply did not quite manage to address this at the first attempt. It read [sic] : “All organisers for the FEI World Equestrian Games™ must demonstrate robust financial plans in order to host an event on this scale, which for Bromont includes public funding commitments as well as private sector funding. The public sector funding for the FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2018 is coming from Quebec’s provincial government as well as local public sector bodies.* Alongside this, there are several private sector organisations involved.*The public sector funding is wholly provincial and local.” (Their asterisks and italics).
Upon a further exchange to point out the main point of my question, the FEI then said there had never ever been a requirement for federal support, therefore they had not waived it!
I asked the FEI if they had contacted Ottawa themselves. They said: “The organising committee shared letters from the government of Quebec pledging financial support for the Games to the FEI.” I’ll take that as a ‘No,’ then. And sharing letters about pledges does not, in my view, demonstrate “robust financial plans.”
Meanwhile, Bromont told me there had been meetings [plural] with Ms Qualtrough and members of her team, in which Bromont “described” the event (seems rather late in the day to still be explaining the WEG concept) and “we have been working on documents to answer numerous questions and details of the event” (what else do you expect a Minister to want to know if she is being asked for millions for a global event now approaching like an express train?)
Clearly, none of the sketchy information I have gleaned joins up all the dots, and we may never know exactly who said what to whom and when it was said. The autopsy over the processes of the Bromont bid should maybe wait until every last avenue has been exhausted to somehow salvage these Games and avoid a major embarrassment to great sporting nation.
But it can’t be buried ad infinitum, for in all seriousness, how can the FEI possibly entertain bids for 2022 until it sorts out its own due diligence? The financial catastrophe of so many previous WEGs is partly down to the egos of organisers, but such far-fetched ambitions are aided and abetted by the serial myopia and/or bloody-mindedness of the FEI in flogging on with WEG when history keeps repeating itself, and in not a good way.
Until the first WEG in 1990, all world championships were at stand-alone venues. In the early 1980s, FEI president Prince Philip mooted a multi-sport world gathering as a “one-off.” His daughter and successor as FEI president the Princess Royal, another realist and person of impeccable judgement, also thought it should be a one-off. Stockholm was chosen. I was lucky enough to be there and it was indeed a magical fortnight (though, even then, notable for only a minority of spectators watching more than a couple of disciplines). Thanks to Volvo it broke even and was such a sporting success the FEI decided to retain the concept.
After the Paris fiasco, the Dutch capital in The Hague took on 1994 at fairly short notice, but the organising committee had none of the expertise of iconic Dutch competitions such as Rotterdam (jumping and dressage), Boekelo (eventing) and Apeldoorn (then the mecca of carriage driving) and it was a logistical disaster. Organisers filed for bankruptcy a month later, losing £4million.
Again on the premise of government support the FEI awarded 1998 to Dublin, but then Ireland’s new political leadership changed its mind. Italy stepped in at 12 months’ notice, though had to spread events across multiple venues which rather defeated the object.
Jerez 2002 broke even though admitted to “cash flow” problems; some contractors and service providers were not paid till 2003. The Spanish government complained publicly about the cost of the cross-country course, and that greenery had been sent by truck from England.
Aachen 2006 is also understood to have broken even, though the fact that even the world’s most successful permanent venue could not make a stonking great profit underlined that holding eight disciplines together results in whatever is the opposite of economies of scale.
Kentucky 2010 should have prospered, being an existing facility like Aachen. Yet despite title sponsorship of $10 million and goods and services worth $20 million from Alltech, and $70 million in public support, it finished $1.4 million in the red.
According to tax documents, Alltech president Pearse Lyons gave an extra $3 million in cash and Darley, Sheikh Mohammed’s Thoroughbred breeding operation donated $2million to help with the bail out – his wife, as if we could forget, Princess Haya was the then FEI president and firmly behind the WEG concept.
Half the £64m budget for WEG 2014, also sponsored by Alltech, was met by the public sector, though the escalating cost and logistical nightmare in Normandy led the FEI to commission a major viability study, presented to the FEI sports forum in April 2015. Delegates wanted to retain the concept, but on a more manageable scale with fewer competitors and a shorter, 10-day period.
Ingmar de Vos, FEI president, visited Bromont last month to discuss its funding issues and planning problems.
I was fascinated that in the same breath Ingmar said he wasn’t “surprised” to hear of the five resignations he said he still “believes that this way of organising world championships across all our disciplines is absolutely right for our sport.” He also added: “There is already strong interest in the bidding process for the 2022 Games.” Is this for real?