It’s seven years since the inaugural FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne – April 2012. I remember it very well, for I was approached during a break by a senior vet who urged me to by-pass the eventing meeting I was heading to, and attend the endurance debate instead.
The endurance, in fact, proved news-worthy indeed. We media (all two of us!) arrived late, but once we’d got our notebooks out, distinguished officials stood up and spoke frankly about doping, cheating and death – many of them clearly directing their remarks towards the press. That, I then realised, had been no spontaneous encounter with the vet over coffee; 2012 was the first “open” conference about endurance since 2007, and it seemed quite a few participants wanted the media there to write it all down, the good, the bad and the (mostly) ugly.
That’s the occasion that piqued my interest in the malaise. I have written extensively about it ever since – as valued readers of my blog know only too well…
Seven years, though: desert racing has now crashed from grim to gruesome. So at the eighth edition of the FEI Sports Forum next week, a whole day is devoted to endurance. We will hear recommendations of the special FEI committee that has slaved away since October on potential reforms, hoping to succeed where previous reviews failed.
The day is entitled “Re-shaping Endurance,” though it might just as easily be called “Last Chance at the OK Corral.” There is not much wrong with existing FEI endurance rules, but there’s a lot wrong with their enforcement. The blind-eye attitude of certain officials owes more to the Wild West than to the military/gentlemanly heritage of the Olympic equestrian sports.
This myopia has spread from FEI Group 7 to Europe and South America, various countries of which actively collaborate with the sheikhs. These cabals of officials betray their decent, upstanding colleagues. Until they are weeded out, little will change.
More and more questionable actions by officials are flagged-up by amateur sleuths nowadays, thanks to the weight of evidence readily available on social media.
There is a predictable pattern: official video/rider’s Facebook page/photographer’s website unwittingly posts incriminating images; photos go viral; within 24-36 hours, race results are suddenly revised and the images disappear from the original source (Though why bother? Everyone has taken screen shots!). Then the Ground Jury/rider/other interested party comes up with an imaginative explanation, after a delay presumably to agree what they are going to say. Rather than spill the beans and upset friends or sponsors, many would rather look stupid or convey that they’ve somehow managed to advance through the FEI ranks without knowing any rules.
Being named and shamed on Facebook may temporarily embarrass, but there is only an official follow-up if the incident is reported through the proper channels to the FEI, which doesn’t often happen. So ahead of the Forum, it’s good to learn that two recent blind-eye turnings have been referred, with evidence.
The first instance has already been mentioned by Horse-Canada.com. This concerns the sand-encrusted Techno de la Bassanne wearing a tourniquet tight noseband, during a CEI 120Km in Abu Dhabi.
It was my own original Facebook post that triggered this particular social media frenzy. The picture was just one of 100-odd tack images from the current winter season I’ve been sent by concerned observers all round the world, and so any one of them could have accompanied my comment. That is significant in the context of what happened next.
The FEI quizzed the Ground Jury, who advised the rider was stopped DURING the first loop and the offending noseband removed, and that he later apologised and accepted an official verbal warning (of which there is no public record).
There are about 10,000 horse starts in CEI and CEN the UAE each winter, 90% of them kitted out in hardware worthy of the Spanish Inquisition. So seriously, what were the odds of UAE officials having a light-bulb moment about the exact same horse I’d randomly highlighted? And furthermore, what are the odds of officially stopping any rider mid-loop unless he’s terminally incapacitated, in view of the inevitable time-keeping disputes that would ensue? Lots of people had difficulty believing this, even before more photographic evidence emerged showing Techno still wearing the abominable bridle much later on…
The FEI is keeping its cards close to its chest while investigations continue, but have asked the Ground Jury why, if this incident was indeed handled on-the-day, the rider wasn’t disqualified AND handed a yellow warning card (the prescribed minimum sanction for abuse?). The FEI raised this with Abu Dhabi over a week ago. No reply yet.
Endurance in Chile doesn’t usually attract global attention, but the March 30th FEI fixture at Llay Llay made up for it. That ride had it all – a ringer-rider, conflicts of interest, disappearing photos and airbrushed results. And the piece de resistance – the discovery that in these parts, a horse vetted out is often made to continue anyway. What for – the hope it will miraculously come sound after another 20km or so?
Photos appeared on the Chile Enduro Facebook page of the same horse in the same CEI* 80km with two different riders (different genders, too) both wearing bib 115. The first rider was not a raw ingénue but someone who has competed internationally since 2005 AND is accredited FEI treating vet. She is a friend of, and also worked till recently in the same vet practice as the daughter of the president of the Llay Llay Ground Jury.
These photos were widely shared and, predictably, disappeared from the original page once someone realised they were in a hole. Explanation One then arrived on cue from the Ground Jury president: the rider felt unwell after loop one, but wanted the horse to continue, so he allowed the male substitute to climb aboard, wearing the same number. He (an experienced 4* official) overlooked informing those who needed to know. No flouting of rules was intended.
Meanwhile, results on different databases were clumsily changed in hindsight, variously showing retirement at gate one, vetting out for lameness at gate one, and vetting out at gate three – still with the original rider. This then made a nonsense of Explanation Two, this time from the owner, who a couple of days later was still proffering the “unwell rider/wanting the horse to do more miles under someone else” version of events. Oh, yes, and another member of the FEI Ground Jury was himself riding in the CEN at the time he was meant to be officiating in the CEI – the jury president’s son-in-law, in fact.
It is not often the FEI publicly states, so early in an investigation, that they take issue with their own most senior officials. The FEI wrote to me yesterday: “The initial information provided was that, after the first loop, the horse was permitted to go on a training loop with another athlete. The FEI is not satisfied with the initial explanation provided by the President of the Ground Jury and the decisions taken on site.”
FEI has so far revised the official results, disqualified the riding vet lady for “not conforming with many rules” and given the horse the maximum compulsory rest for being vetted out after 84km (irrespective of who rode it.) FEI is now deciding if all dramatis personae should face disciplinary proceedings.
It hasn’t happened that often, but when Ground Juries err in other disciplines the FEI usually throws the book at them. Last year there were two-year suspensions each for officials who covered-up a judge’s absence from a 2018 Youth Olympic Games jumping qualifier and, in 2016, two dressage judges who favourably judged a compatriot wanting to get to Rio were suspended three months each.
Those were both high-profile occasions. The big issue with endurance is that so much of its flagrant rule-breaking and blind eye-turning takes place in backwaters. Some stakeholders have got so used to doing exactly what they like, un-noticed and unchallenged, that their moral compasses point backwards. The people who call out the serial rule-breakers are seen as the bad guys – like I said, Wild West.
Whatever the conclusions of next Tuesday’s debate, public confidence in endurance officials needs a boost. Robust rejection of those who work to such abysmal standards would do just that.