This side of the pond it is generally thought that “Brexit” was voted on by older people and opposed by the young. Students and 20-somethings have become increasingly bitter about the likely economic hardship foisted on them by the selfish “wrinklies” who will be dead by the time Britain has gone to the dogs. It can’t be denied that in terms of the unintended consequences of our leaving the European Union, the hits just keep on coming. On the whole, though, one’s judgement keeps improving with age and experience. At least that seems the rationale behind a proposal to limit those able to vote in FEI athlete elections to the handful of experienced horsemen at the very top.
I certainly sympathise with any attempt to mitigate the risk of welfare and sporting decisions being kiboshed by people who patently don’t understand the issues, which happens more than it should in horse sport.
However, one thing troubles me about this latest radical proposal to go before the FEI: disenfranchising thousands of international riders, and younger ones especially, is morally wrong and is hardly compatible with the oft-stated aim of growing horse sport worldwide.
How might this come about? Well, since 2014 one athlete has been elected to each of the FEI’s jumping, eventing, dressage, para, endurance, driving, vaulting and reining technical committees. Together they also form a separate athletes committee which has a representative – currently former Swedish international jumper Maria Gretzer – on the all-powerful FEI bureau.
In 2014, over 10,000 riders were entitled to vote for their athletes’ reps. But the FEI bureau is now running with a suggestion from the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) that from 2018 only riders who have competed at one of the past two world championships or Olympic Games may vote. Not even Pan Ams, Europeans, Asian Games or the FEI continental medal events for young riders would count for this elite electoral college. Nor, it seems, riding in a top tier jumping Nations Cup or finishing in the top 10 of a four-star three-day event or winning the freestyle to music at Aachen. Given that riders aged under 30 are the minority, albeit a large one, in WEGs or Olympic Games, the up and coming generation seems especially short-changed by this proposal. National federations have till September 18 to comment.
Notable disenfranchisees from the world top 20 would include eventers Bettina Hoy (Germany) and Hannah Sue Burnett (US), and jumper Laura Kraut (US.) John Whitaker, 62, would be entitled to vote but his son, daughter and nephews couldn’t, even though Whitaker genes suggest they will all still be riding internationally in 20 years’ time!
As for Isabelle Lapierre and Jennifer Serek, stars of last weekend’s Bromont World Cup qualifier – no chance. And only four of the current athletes’ reps – Rodrigo Pessoa (jumping), Bartlomiej Kwiatek (driving), Laurentia Tan (para) and Lukas Klouda (vaulting) would be eligible to vote for their own successors when their four-year terms of office end next year.
I can certainly see where the IJRC is coming from. Last winter the jumpers especially were exasperated that countries who don’t even own a horse helped push through the massively unpopular changes to Olympic formats. Since then they have thought a lot about how stakeholders with the longest heritage in horse sport can reassert their influence, for the balance of power in FEI policy decisions is held by 60 or 70 nations who will never, ever get a single rider to the Olympics or a WEG. That is one of my pet peeves too.
Some of the FEI’s 132 member countries are in conflict zones and so they clearly can’t host FEI events themselves. But other countries such as Andorra, Antigua, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iceland, Malta and Nicaragua have somehow managed to remain as FEI members since the 1990s without ever staging FEI-anything, fielding a single FEI rider or training up any FEI accredited officials at all. How can they enjoy exactly the same voting rights at the FEI General Assembly as Canada, the US, Germany et al?
We all saw how the under-informed can make shit happen when the 2009 FEI General Assembly voted to re-legalise ‘bute. Following a backlash, the FEI was forced into an embarrassing U-turn.
The huge disconnect between the numerically dominant “small” nations and the high achieving countries was illustrated by Eleonora Ottaviani, IJRC director, after she returned from the FEI assembly in Tokyo last winter. Her account of one conversation – with a federation that had a 12-year-old rider and 14-year-old rider and hoped to find one more so as to form an Olympic team of three – would have been hilarious had it not been so demoralising.
Still, trying to moderate the influence of member nations who hardly do anything and telling thousands of ACTIVE riders they can’t chose who represents them are two quite different things.
Of course, it may well be that few people will notice or care; for some riders, personal responsibility for the bigger picture extends to moaning on social media about the unfairness of the blood rule, then promptly forgetting about it until the next time a colleagues gets pulled up for it at a competition.
Turn-out for the athlete elections in 2014 was pitiful, after all. Just 431 of the 10,855 eligible riders bothered to go online over the eight weeks the polls were open. One of the least meagre turn-outs was for the endurance vote (169 votes cast from 3,337 eligible riders.) That was hardly surprising as many in Europe and elsewhere feared the royal barns across the Middle East would instruct their many hundreds of stable jockeys to vote for the candidate from Dubai. Can you imagine a thrusting young sheikh pushing the FEI to reduce the break-leg speeds of desert endurance? No, me neither.
Luckily that did not happen. And ironically, the single greatest effect of the IJRC proposal would be to scupper anyone’s thoughts of galvanising a huge desert endurance bloc vote next time. Unfortunately, appealing as that notion is, as currently worded this proposal is not the correct way to go.