Money will always buy personal success in equestrian sport, but is it always going to have the facility to drive the sport overall in a direction suiting the agenda of the super-rich? Maybe not so much anymore.
One of the most interesting things to emerge from the two-day FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne did not form part of the core topic (the reinvention of formats for WEG and the Olympic Games). Much debate was also attached to a new system for classifying jumping shows and apportioning rider rankings points. This has the potential practical effect of clipping the wings of the high value, pay card shows and especially, though without actually saying so, the Longines Global Champions Tour.
The Tour is in its infancy in North America, but has overwhelmed the European calendar over the past decade, offering the possibility of winning six-figure prize pots in multiple classes over a single weekend. It has got a lot of jumping on TV and added glamour, though some might also interpret this latter as the promotion of elitism, the very thing the FEI does not want in view of messages coming through loud and clear from the IOC.
I have hugely enjoyed the GCTs I have attended in Europe, though have often thought it is probably a good thing these shows are so VIP, corporate hospitality-led and that the number of ordinary spectators is quite small: the riding standards of some of the lower-ranked pay card-ee riders is not, ahem, a very good advertisement for any sport. It must be baffling for spectators not au fait with the pay card premise of GCT as to why some of these lesser-knowns are jumping alongside the likes of Scott Brash.
Now, with disarming candour, FEI vice-president and jumping committee chair John Madden has explained why things will change in favour of clear opportunities for all talented athletes to compete at the best shows from the start of their careers. The business model of pay cards has allowed athletes to “buy” rankings points for too long, he opined.
“High prize-money and VIP packages have their place, but they cannot be compared to CSI with riders from the top of the rankings,” he said.
“People must be able to compete through hard work and talent and not the size of the wallet.
“If we go on with a false economic model based, a sort of sweepstakes, the sport will implode on itself some day.”
The FEI has had a long and uneasy co-existence with the GCT, which, in recent years, has started running on the same weekends as FEI Nations Cups, and has expanded its own calendar so fast that a five-star horse could fill its entire summer doing GCT and nothing else.
The pressure to keep at the top of the GTC rankings was blamed last year by the then British chef d’equipe Rob Hoekstra for wearing out British horsepower. Hoekstra said the point had been reached whereby riders would have to choose GCT or Nations Cups, but not both. In just two years, my own country has gone from being Olympic champions to facing an uphill struggle to qualify for Rio.
Finding a subtle antidote can’t have been easy. Now the FEI has come up with a ploy that is genius is its simplicity. Any show can “invite” who it wants and offer multiple highly priced pay cards within the existing parameters. The difference is this: rankings points awarded at such shows will simply be halved. There are other initiatives too. A new category of six-star show will be introduced, but awarded on a range of criteria, not just the amount of prize-money. There is also a proposal to further elevate the importance of FEI Nations Cups by making them a main tool for qualifying for future WEGs.
The new look, Haya-hardly-even-mentioned-in-passing FEI forum enjoyed a lot of very open debate. The FEI “family” still isn’t good about mentioning the elephant in the room, though.
Incredibly, this time last year people were being virtually shouted down for mentioning the UAE by name in connection with the endurance scandals. Twelve months on, the UAE is openly and unavoidably mentioned by name because it is suspended and, at this precise moment at least, finding that super-richness can’t buy you out of trouble with the FEI.
Similarly, the above mentioned, very long debate about pay cards and their undue influence on rankings took place without the word GCT actually being uttered. Even the GCT representative described himself somewhat anonymously as an “independent show” when registering his inevitable objections.
It takes a lot to change course in an ocean-going cruise liner, but the good ship FEI does seem to be reasserting itself and has embarked on a confident starboard turn.
More news and thoughts on the forum’s main debates when I have waded through my volume of notes!