It was a shame the FEI did not live-stream Monday’s final debate on the controversial Olympic format changes, held at its General Assembly in Tokyo.
I don’t think, though, that anything said would have changed many voters’ minds prior to Tuesday’s landslide. The controversial three-to-a-team, no drop-score formula was always going to be approved, because the FEI has nearly three times more member countries than compete at elite levels. Only a tiny handful would reject any option promising them a chance of sending someone to the Games one distant day, and enabling equestrianism to tick the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) “universality” box.
The composition of the 11 nations who stood firm to four to a team was interesting. It included five major equestrian nations, as one might expect – Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and New Zealand – but also smaller European federations – Albania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Luxembourg, Monaco and Romania – who could reasonably benefit from IOC/FEI ambitions to admit more flags.
The USA was notable for vigorously supporting teams of four in the early stages of consultation some 18 months back, but latterly changing its mind. The Canadian federation has been taken to task by its jumpers for voting in favour instead of reflecting their views.
Others too will have relented out of fear the IOC really does mean to chuck horses out if we don’t make drastic reforms. My home federation, Britain, has been keen on three-to-a-team for some time, though was the only NF to vote against reduction in number in para dressage which on the face of it smacks of unusual self-interest.
The devil is in the detail. The sport-specific changes veered some way from that first wave of recommendations.
Eventing, as widely predicted, will be dumbed down for the newbies. The future Olympic cross-country course, and qualifications, will be at three-star level. I suppose that admitting the Olympics is not now the pinnacle of eventing is at least more transparent than providing championship tracks pretending to be four-star that are in reality three-star-and-a-bit.
Rather more depressing are the gyrations the FEI has gone through to provide a solution to first-time Olympic eventing teams not completing – a PR disaster that could just as easily upset the IOC as equestrianism doggedly refusing to change.
This involves the radical new concepts (for the team contest only) of bouncing in a substitute half-way through, if required, and allowing a horse and rider combination to start the next phase despite failing to complete the phase before. They would carry through a penalty forfeit of 100 for incomplete dressage and jumping and 150 for cross-country, thereby enabling their team to appear in the classified results, albeit nearer the bottom than the top.
So am I right in thinking that an eventing team at Tokyo 2020 could have all three members crash and burn by, say, fence 10 but still go onto the final day’s stadium rounds and thus be able to put “Olympic completion” on their CVs? How do you square that with the comment of FEI president Ingmar de Vos that “good luck and bad luck are part of the game, no successful sports have mechanisms in place to repair failure” in his letter to the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) when countering their plea for the drop-score to be retained?
Ingmar didn’t need to be quite so dismissive of the IJRC’s 11th hour PR offensive. In any other field of endeavour, campaigning continues till the last second – ask Donald Trump or the Brexit lobby. There is more to democracy than a bunch of suits sitting in conference hall and logging a vote. In fact, the IJRC has been very vocal about the importance of the drop score from the outset; its representatives played an active role the FEI forum in April, the last time the formats were publicly discussed by all sports together in one place. Steve Guerdat actually interrupted a debate about something else to make his heart-felt case for teams of four.
Returning to the eventing, I think I am missing something else, too: by giving an eventing team an extra penalty for substituting a horse part-way you unintentionally (I hope) incentivise a rider to plug on with a horse that is feeling below par (while not so hopping-lame that a vet will notice) rather than pull someone off the substitute’s bench.
The FEI should have learned about the law of unintended consequences from the first year of its de-merit, penalty system in endurance. It’s a great idea in principle, but still needs refinement which, in fairness, is happening.
For instance, the 25 penalties awarded to the rider of a horse vetted out for metabolics requiring vet treatment has led to a perceptible rise in “retirements” on the loops, presumably to avoid the penalty. There is an even more difficult-to-comprehend apparent drop in fatal injuries this year, which command 80 penalties. I don’t believe fewer horses are dying in endurance just yet, judging by the dire results still emanating from Dubai in particular, where a national ride on Monday this week saw a completion rate of just 16%. To me, it’s more likely folk are now incentivised to ship a traumatically injured horse off site before euthanasia, to avoid the penalty points.
As for new-look Olympic Grand Prix dressage, I am baffled why the Special will in future be ridden with music. If onlookers can’t concentrate on something on its own merits for just a few minutes, covers of old favourites from Abba and Springsteen won’t keep them on their seats.
I did not go to Rio, but had a lengthy email exchange with a general sports writer friend dispatched to report the dressage, in which I tried to explain the difference between a set test ridden with music in the background and the freestyle to music. Well, that was an hour of my life I won’t get back!
Media received several press releases from the FEI on Tuesday about the new format vote. One quoted Ingmar thus: “We are a sport with 134 national federations, and it’s correct [I think he means factually accurate, rather than justifiable] that only a limited number of them compete at elite level, but we can only be ambitious and get more national federations to compete at the top level if we can offer them an avenue for development.”
I hope this does not herald a push to get people riding on every rocky outcrop of the developing world. Winter sports, for instance, are not heavily pushed in the not especially ski-friendly UK, north Africa or the West Indies, yet equestrianism often seems fixated on asserting itself in countries that are geographically and environmentally unsuitable, even hostile. This is all the more disturbing because equestrian is the only regulated sport where a non-human sentient being doesn’t have the choice whether to participate.
Just two weeks ago I attended the World Horse Welfare conference in London, where HH Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed al Nahyan courageously pointed the finger at his homeland, the United Arab Emirates, for turning endurance into a “broken” sport.
One of Sheikh Sultan’s fellow speakers was Chris Riggs of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, who gave a demoralising account of efforts to scratch the surface of horse welfare in organised sport on mainland China: according to Riggs, there is a serious shortage of drugs available for humane euthanasia.
This reminded me of my conversation with a member of the now defunct Endurance Strategic Planning Group (ESPG) and a representative of the FEI’s Equine Community Integrity Unit during the 2013 FEI General Assembly in Montreux, Switzerland. Those three long years ago we were transfixed by evidence of all the doping and fractures in FEI Group 7 endurance (Middle East,) while not yet being aware of other scandals yet to emerge – horse ID fraud and the phantom rides. The ESPG bod said: “We have just got to sort out Group 7; if we can’t, heaven help us if a country the size of China gets a taste for endurance.” Indeed.
For sure it’s honourable to open up the Olympic dream, but I don’t want to see any more countries hauled out of their comfort zone than we already have, or to see equestrianism pushed into further parts of the world that, through no fault of their own, are profoundly horse-averse.
“Universality” is all very well, but you need to know where to stop. Or where we should even have already stopped.