I am not keen on the FEI’s three-to-a-team proposal for future Olympics, and the inevitable catering for a lower standard of riding that will come with it.
But in potentially opening up the Games to many more countries, we could at least see an end to desperate courtroom machinations like this one, recently buried in the FEI Tribunal archive.
The Rio dressage situation is clearly a sore point with Canada. You are not the only ones who feel failed by a skewed quota system. Portuguese dressage star Goncalo Carvalho was recently reduced to lobbying Tribunal to demote two other European riders further down the Olympic individual qualifying points league; had he succeeded in causing difficulties for Valentina Truppa of Italy and Inna Logutenkova of Ukraine, Carvalho would have moved up enough to claim Portugal – a country with an important heritage in classical riding – an individual Rio place.
The Tribunal dismissed both his appeals. The proceedings make a fascinating read here.
Look at his competition record and you have to wonder how Carvalho didn’t get through to Rio on his own merit, especially as the dressage quota has increased to 60 riders compared with 50 at London. He hasn’t been out of the top three in any of his 2016 3-star shows with Batuta. They’ve previously won at 5-star; they’ve placed in the top 10 in all five of their World Cup freestyles this winter. With Rubi, now retired, he scored 74.222% at London 2012 in the Special to finish 13th. At least 675 other people wonder why too, signing a petition against his omission.
But the equestrian Olympics have never been about the very best in the world. It’s about the best extracted from each of a number of contrived regional groupings.
I recognize it can’t be easy to decide who to lump in with whom for quota allocations when there are some countries so small you can drive across them in half a day, and others where vast land masses and huge oceans stand in the way of riders seeking any kind of “international” exposure.
We all know that’s the deal, and that Europeans in particular will always draw a lot of the short straws when it comes to Olympic quotas. In jumping, a total of 24 European nations slogged it out at the WEG and the Europeans for eight team places. This side of the pond we are still getting our heads round why the stand-out side of the global 2015 Furusiyya Nations Cups, Belgium, did not secure one of them.
At the other extreme, 53-year-old Cologne-based communications entrepreneur Christian Zimmerman (formerly Bruhe, he has adopted his wife’s maiden name) had the presence of mind to swap in 2013 from German nationality to that of Palestine. He represented Palestine dressage at WEG 2014. According to the FEI database, Palestine has just five other active FEI registered riders, all in jumping, two registered horses and is, for obvious political difficulties, not staging any international horse shows. In Florida this winter he scored mostly around the mid 60%s in Grand Prix. Only 11 other riders were vying against him for the Africa regional individual dressage slot.
So it is very easy to imagine why those who have not made the cut will be comparing their achievements with those that have.
Portugal did not qualify a full team for Rio, though with only a couple of weeks to go before the March 6th deadline for individual qualifying, Carvalho was sitting fairly comfortably in the rankings. But at the last-minute others nudged ahead.
For his appeal, he spotted two possibilities.
First he argued that Truppa should lose all Olympic rankings points accrued on Quixote Eremo del Castegno because by January her top string had been sold to Brazil (though intriguingly has not yet been seen out in FEI with his new owner-rider Jorge Ferreira Da Rocha, 70, who has not competed internationally since 2012).
Carvalho cited the rule that horse-rider combinations entered for the Games must be registered in the same nationality by January 15th. Clearly he was pushing his luck. The same-nationality rule is not about qualifying and never has been, and if so applied it would cut out just about everyone else, too, at some point in their career.
Carvalho then argued it is “contrary to the ethics of sport” to validate qualifications obtained with a certain horse, and then permit that rider to compete with another horse. If you follow that to its logical conclusion, all the countries who qualified teams during WEG 2014 would be looking at running exactly the same combinations two years later.
He even ventured that the sporting activity of rider and horse was inseparable. In an ideal world it probably should be. Many results would be a whole lot different if folk were obliged to produce their championship rides right through the grades themselves (also sorting out many ills in Middle East endurance at a stroke!)
It was also a bit rich of Carvalho to raise that aspect bearing in mind Batuta went to him in 2014 as a Big Tour horse, previously competed by Jose Maria Antonio Mena of Spain.
But when you feel as ill-used as Carvalho clearly does, of course you push your luck. Tribunal, obviously, wasn’t buying that.
I do, though, understand his second appeal, regarding the alleged nationalistic judging of Logutenkova by her fellow Ukrainians at the Lier CDI in Belgium just days before the qualifying deadline.
That controversy has already been the subject of much media coverage. Protests were lodged by the Polish federation and, prior to his appeal, by Carvalho himself.
In due course the FEI disregarded the Lier Grand Prix Special, though this didn’t alter Logutenkova’s overall standings.
I have myself wondered how the FEI dressage committee concluded there was overtly nationalistic judging in the Special but not in the two other Lier classes where Logutenkova also came before her compatriots and again scored career bests, albeit not as extreme as the near 10% differential between the two Ukrainian judges and rest in the Special.
Cavalho said it was logical to dismiss all her Lier results. However, Tribunal said this was considered in the original FEI review and added: “The opinion of the appellant that the scores have been over-rated could not be regarded as independent or objective, unlike the opinion of the FEI Dressage Committee.”
Carvalho also alleged conflict of interest. Lier is part of the World Dressage Masters series backed by VIAN Group who also happen to sponsor Logutenkova. Carvalho suggested this influenced Lier to invite four Ukrainian judges in all. (3-star CDIs in northern Europe rarely go to the trouble or expense of inviting the obligatory “foreign” judge from countries beyond their immediate neighbours).
The Tribunal ruled that no conflict of interest arises merely when rider and event have the same sponsor. Though I don’t think the Tribunal’s example of Rolex-sponsored Steve Guerdat non-conflictedly winning the Rolex Grand Prix in Geneva was the most relevant comparison; jumping isn’t subjectively judged.
Certainly, when the FEI revises quotas and qualification procedures alongside the Olympic format change it must strike a careful balance. It needs to accommodate new flags without over-facing horses and riders so as to shatter their confidence and prompt a mass turn-off on TV. Equally, it must not further reduce Olympic opportunities for countries with true heritage and excellence in equestrian sports to the extent of discouraging owners and other inward investment in their national sport.
Meanwhile, Carvalho must sit it out and see if any quota places that are not taken up come his way, after other countries’ certificates of capability are finalised on June 18. Though if Carvalho does make it in the end, whoever draws up the exercise schedule at Deodoro might tactfully allocate Portugal’s arena time at a different hour to that of Italy and Ukraine!