A few days before WEG, I shared a current aeriel video of Tryon on Facebook, saying it looked rather more finished than all the images we’ve been seeing from the ground. An American friend promptly posted a picture of Earth taken from Outer Space – Tryon looks even better and more finished the further away you stand….
Certainly the past week has been like observing from a parallel universe. On the one hand, nothing but pink and fluffy press releases from the FEI and Tryon itself. Let’s cheer Tryon for working so hard to get a luxury venue we all thought was more or less ready when given the games 18 months ago half-ready on time.
On the other hand, I have been mesmerized by the non-stop feed on social media of organisational chaos, red dust, mud and floods, and still-being thought-about-but-not-actually-constructed key facilities.
Three days into actual competition, I remain staggered that fire and safety authorities have signed off the public areas. Horse welfare is paramount, as the FEI bleats all the time, but what about people welfare? I’ve been reassured to read about the evacuation plans if Florence hits with all her might. Yet meanwhile I see (current) photos of electric cables festooned willy-nilly across ceilings (where they’ve managed to supply a ceiling, that is) and chunks of discarded construction stuff propped up along public walkways. All lie in wait to mangle innocent passers-by through falling down of their own accord.
I will address the general viability of Tryon and – yet again – the troubled history of all WEGs in another blog. But for now, of course, the fall-out from endurance.
Earlier in the week, riders from all the various sports derived a bemused entertainment from watching the SOS construction going on around them. Most, though, were pretty sanguine, apart from obviously feeling outraged and upset for their homeless grooms. It’s human nature to assess anything through the prism of your own interest. So dressage and reining are mostly happy because they love the footing, and the eventers are liking their cross-country course so far.
This means no-one other than endurance will be bothered for more than a day or two longer about the deluge of suffering and indignity ladled upon the opening day’s headline event.
Endurance fans will already have pieced together the sequence of events and binge-watched footage from the re-start and eventual stoppage, so I won’t repeat a blow by blow account here.
Alas, FEI TV coverage was sporadic, with screens blanked out citing “technical difficulties” whenever something went wrong. Worse still it was anchored by nice Ed Holloway, so ill-briefed about even the good things in endurance that he kept defaulting to his comfort mode: eventing. As turmoil raged before everyone’s eyes, the words that went with it included a homage to William Fox-Pitt and the fascinating fact that he (Ed) used to date Sandra Auffarth. Ed knew the name of one reigning world champion, then – just a shame it wasn’t anyone connected with endurance.
Those of us viewing a continent away therefore had to rely on Facebook Live for accounts of the race itself, largely thanks to UAE 4* judge Ahmed Al Hammadi. With the huge distraction of the trail-building/tick control fiasco, we’d have had no idea the vetgate was only cobbled together days before the race but for Ahmed’s daily dispatches.
Naturally, Ahmed “bigged-up” the permanent Meydan-supported venues in Dubai and Europe; but it was a point well made – their presentation and facilities ARE indeed fabulous. At least he did not push his luck by claiming the conduct of certain riders, trainers and other officials at those venues is unworthy of criticism.
Without doubt, the inattention to detail paid to Tryon’s endurance facility and the questionable briefing of stewards and volunteers – well intentioned people but completely out of their depth – was a direct contributor to what went wrong.
I’d guess the venue didn’t really give a toss about this particular discipline and was just pleased to stick Meydan’s huge donation in the general pot. Look out for the video when one Good ol’ Boy tells Ahmed to stop arguing because he “outranks” him as co-owner of the site. When the proprietor doesn’t get what the deal is when you undertake to host a FEI event, we might as well all pack up now.
We all await the official conclusions from the Equine Community Integrity Unit, though I am sure conspiracy theories will remain.
One is that the UAE “set-up” the misdirection of riders at the start (though I am not sure how even petro-dollars could have enabled that) to make a fool of the FEI. Another is that UAE riders were the main advocates for the race to be stopped – because they were already out of the competition and had cooked their horses by going too fast, as usual.
Rather too quickly a petition was started, demanding a re-run at another venue, with Sheikh Mohammed (and/or his connections) picking up the entire tab. Only 18 of the 40 teams signed it, two later withdrawing, so that probably didn’t give the message the UAE expected.
But you are not going to find too much general outrage about any of this in the rest of the horse world. Mainstream media coverage has been paltry. First, the brutal fact is that most of my colleagues already regard endurance as a lost cause, a third-nation status sport with no business being in the FEI at all. Most colleagues have published the official brief FEI press releases about the re-start and stoppage out of duty. The second reason is that the journalist themselves are working in terrible conditions.
We don’t mind slumming it. At many a minor events I have written my reports sitting on wet grass, or from the back seat of my car, or a table edge in a crowded canteen if they have one. Before mobile phones and internet, you’d drive to the phone booth in the nearest town and dictate your article to a copytaker.
But a tad more is expected at a world championship. Veterans of numerous Olympics, WEGs, Europeans and Pan Ams tell me this is about the worst press set-up they’ve ever encountered. There are so many missing basic facilities and services no wonder they are now being fed free of charge – comfort food. Some of them even helped assemble the workstations.
Attempting to keep an eye on the endurance at all when you are also trying to cover dressage, reining and walk the cross-country is being made difficult here by incompetence, obstruction – and apparent censorship. The latter is another very worrying things about the way FEI sport is headed.
Thirty photographers signed up for the shuttles to the endurance start, even though they knew it would be dark. But there was only room for 15. Apart from this, only ONE other vantage point of the endurance track was officially arranged for media.
Photographers who made it to the first crew point witnessed unprecedented confusion, with the accidental mixing of horses and spectators. Some who legitimately tried to photograph a horse who was in difficulty were approached by an angry FEI official who told them to stop, claiming this was an FEI “instruction.”
And because the FEI knows full well that only a handful of journalists, including some like myself who are not even on site, will persist with wanting answers they’ve neatly dodged staging a press conference, so far.
I am hearing, at the time of writing, that there might now be one today (September 14). IF it happens here some questions that ought to be asked:
• Benedicte Emond-Bon, the French chef d’equipe, has said the cancellation punished riders who did preserve their horses and ride to the conditions – the forgotten point of endurance. How can FEI reverse the perception that everything now is determined by the high-speed, flat racing style of the UAE
• What regard was paid, if any, to the horse management issues afflicting to the front runners who finished the first loop well ahead and were forced to wait far longer than a normal hold period?
• Is it true the re-start went against advice of the veterinary commission who realized it would run into darkness and the onset of hot, humid conditions?
• How can the FEI criticize welfare in Group 7 in future, after the dreadful scenes directly attributable to the FEI’s own allocation of a championship ride to a venue not fit for purpose?
• Non-Olympic disciplines have drawn the short straw before at a WEGs – though nowhere as bad as Tryon. Isn’t it time to scrap WEG and reintroduce single discipline world championships at venues that know what they are doing?