Over the past 12 years I have written six lengthy pieces for various publications asking “what is the point of the World Equestrian Games (WEG)?” Anyone over 50 will recall the kudos and success of single-discipline world championships that were the norm till 1986.The first WEG, Stockholm 1990, was only ever meant to be a one-off.
I have never really understood who the all-eight-sports-in-one-basket format is aimed at. Why do so many promoters assume that anything with a horse in it is of automatic, overwhelming interest to all? Most people like music, too, but show me a successful international festival with classical, jazz, country, hip hop, opera and rock all on the same bill! Even the FEI didn’t have figures available for spectators attending two or more disciplines till we got past WEG number three. I recall asking for them several times.
Yet whenever anyone has queried the validity of WEG, the FEI has firmly stated it’s by far the best way to showcase elite sport and that everyone likes it. This remained the stance even after it was common knowledge that WEG is a licence to shell out millions in unrecoverable cash.
Nowadays, experienced organisers would rather pull out their own fingernails than be lumbered with WEG. The FEI will allocate WEG to the last man standing rather than admit it isn’t a goer. At least twice the FEI has failed to ask governments direct if they are supporting the bidder – presumably for fear of hearing something it doesn’t want to know.
Ironic then, that just now we’ve found an Organizing Committee (OC) keen to repeat the WEG in, say, eight years’ time, the FEI has decided to re-evaluate the whole concept and contemplate breaking it up into more sustainable components. FEI president Ingmar de Vos said this at two press conferences this past fortnight. This significant shift was noted by just about everyone apart from the Tryon OC, which has the hide of a rhinoceros.
The non-Olympic disciplines usually draw the shorter straws at WEGs, so a return to single or dual discipline championships would at least restore their championships to places that know what they are doing.
I thought that when Tryon was chosen to replace Bromont – Samorin in Slovakia was also keen – it was the finished article in terms of arenas, stables and spectator infrastructure. This left the eventing cross-country, endurance and driving marathon as the major tasks, surely do-able with all the land at Tryon’s disposal?
But while you definitely need innovators in horse sport, the Yes We Can personality must also respect the people who understand what end the oats go in. Tryon has repeatedly flagged up – probably without even realising its doing it – its startling lack of horse sense.
In particular are the constant reminders Tryon had “only” two years or whatever to prepare. No recollection, then, that The Hague (1994) and Rome (1998) came in as substitute WEG venues at even shorter notice, using largely non-permanent sites? Rome had only a year. Neither of them screwed up anywhere close to this extent. In fact, Rome was rather good.
I needn’t repeat the catalogue of Tryon disasters here; it’s been non-stop on social media. Though in that light, the final day’s press conference with OC and FEI was surprisingly non-contentious, compared with the endurance-specific presser a week earlier. The latter was notable for being cut short after a barrage of questions rather more on point than the FEI probably anticipated.
Answering media questions on the last day were Sharon Decker, Tryon’s head of operations, a lady so warm and disarming in broadcast interviews you almost ended up empathising; current FEI secretary-general Sabrina Ibanez; FEI president Ingmar de Vos; and, also for Tryon, Michael Stone.
As Messrs Stone and de Vos are both former FEI secretary-generals, there isn’t much they don’t know about keeping “on message.” Moreover, Ingmar introduced the conference by gushing about the attendance of International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach. The coded message to media was: “think about what you ask us – the IOC doesn’t need reminding it thought about chucking us out.”
Why, though, should we have expected any soul-baring about the multiple fiascos? Apart from Mark Bellissimo’s “personal” statement on grooms’ accommodation, we haven’t heard much contrition from Tryon itself. Instead, they’ve boasted how marvellous their resort will be – eventually. In an informal media briefing, it became clear the WEG was an opportunity to show off Tryon, rather than Tryon simply providing the backdrop for world’s best horses and riders. Wrong answer!
Indeed, Tryon seems so unaware of the numerous horse communities that exist outside its own “lifestyle” offer I wonder if it even realises 9/12 did as much to destroy endurance as a FEI discipline as a decade’s worth of doping and cheating in the Middle East?
The surrounds of Tryon are indeed beautiful. The completed front-of-house facilities are presented to a high standard. So I have given a fair bit of thought to this: if the horse world refused Tryon the chance to host another significant championship when it really is finished, would we bite-off-nose-to-spite-face?
There is, alas, an irrecoverable loss of trust from the equestrian community, and also the local one: traders and contractors were allegedly not paid in a timely way, and some walked off the job. The huge volunteer corps has, by all accounts, exuded charm and friendliness from the front-line, steadfastly placating irate/confused/hungry/dehydrated/drenched/ripped-off spectators while the people who should have been briefing the volunteers fled to the hills. I have experienced Southern Hospitality on previous occasions and it lives up to its generous reputation, but seriously, who of these lovely folks would volunteer for Tryon ever again?
The loss of confidence has been articulated by Soenke Lauterbach, secretary-general of the German equestrian federation who is usually a reliable barometer of opinion in the corridors of power.
And even if Tryon did run like clockwork, when would you hold such a major event with the benefit of hindsight? October is too late in the context of the overall global FEI calendar. North Carolina might have been unlucky with the hurricane, but it should be no surprise the southern states are hot, humid and horse-unfriendly in September.
You also cannot get away from the piroplasmosis paranoia of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the shoddy treatment of piro-positive horses. It was touch and go whether USDA would allow them in till the last minute. Barring them in future would be simpler, but most likely exclude many who have every right to compete for the highest honours.
As Brazilian endurance rider Andre Vidiz revealed in his highly recommended “diary of a fiasco” you would have thought the piro horses were stricken with Ebola virus. A member of the veterinary commission tells me that ammonia in the poorly ventilated piro barn stung your eyes; the health of the piro endurance horses was compromised before they even made it to the start – wherever that was, of course.
The absence of any “horsemanship” within the OC has also been echoed by Eric Lamaze, giving the jumpers’ perspective.
Moreover, would the eventual on-site hotels actually boost spectator numbers to world championship levels. Do we want acres of empty seats shown on TV yet again? The first few WEGs were staged in or around capital cities – Stockholm 1990, The Hague (substituted for Paris) 1994 and Rome (ditto, Dublin) 1998, where a surfeit of hotels, public transport, eateries and bars gave visitors enormous choice. I for one have never returned to any outdoor event that thinks it can hold spectators to ransom over the purchase of comestibles, simply because it is staged out of town.
We can’t know whether the FEI itself feels any contrition, because it has been uniformly silent about most of the mess-ups, aside from announcing the official investigation into endurance has been expanded.
And well might the FEI remain silent. Thousands of people must be wanting their money back. These range from ticket-holders for cancelled events to national federations, riders and owners whose collective financial and emotional investment in WEG 2018 will make whatever Tryon has spent look like small change.
Blaming the weather, rather than crass incompetence, seems to be the get-out-of-jail-free tactic at the moment. Will many will buy that excuse for long?