Written by: Pamela Young

While the majority of the national federations voted in favour of Olympic and Paralympic rule changes, not everyone, especially the riders themselves, agreed on the method or the outcome.

Thumbnail for Decisions from the FEI General Assembly

Richard Juillart/FEI Photo

After two years of consultation and debate, national equestrian federations across the globe voted overwhelmingly in favour of format changes for the Olympic and Paralympic Games at November’s FEI General Assembly in Tokyo, Japan.

Under the new proposals, the number of athletes in national teams will be reduced to three and the drop score discarded. The use of a reserve combination for teams will remain in place. Simplifying the format of equestrian sport in order to make it easier to understand and more appealing to a broader audience is a key element of the proposed changes.

Equestrian Canada (EC) was among 96 national federations who voted in favour of the Olympic proposal. Only 11 federations, including equestrian powerhouses France, Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, voted against the proposal. In the Paralympic vote, Great Britain was the only nation to vote against.

The recommendations of Olympic Agenda 2020, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) strategic roadmap for the Olympic Movement, obliged the FEI to focus on increasing the number of participating nations while remaining within the existing quota of 200 athletes, as well as growing TV viewing numbers. A year ago, FEI president Ingmar de Vos warned federations at the 2015 General Assembly that the IOC had made it abundantly clear that equestrian sport had to make every effort to be contemporary. “The changes we are looking at are not changes for change’s sake – they are to safeguard our future,” he said then.

According to EC president Jorge Bernhard, the changes adopted by the General Assembly “will help protect the inclusion of equestrian sport at the Olympic and Paralympic Games by increasing global representation, and making the format more readily understandable in order to attract a broader fan base.”

The worldwide popularity of equestrian sport and its attractiveness to TV is as important to the IOC as it is to the FEI. Over a four-year Olympic cycle, broadcasting rights provide 47% of IOC revenue. The more popular a sport is, the more TV coverage it receives and the more money the IOC allocates to it.

Following the London Olympics, a new revenue-sharing ranking, produced by the IOC, dropped equestrian from Group C into Group D, one up from the bottom in a list of five groups comprising the 28 summer Olympic sports. According to IOC spokesperson Rachel Rominger, the decision to position equestrian in group D was made based on a review of all the Olympic sports using a range of indicators including “figures on broadcast coverage, media coverage, ticketing demand and other factors.”

The ranking is therefore indicative of how much each sport generates in terms of revenue for the IOC and determines how much it gets back from the IOC; or in other words, who gets the biggest share of the hundreds of millions of dollars generated from television rights and other deals from each Summer Games.

After the 2008 Beijing Games, for comparison, athletics, which stood alone in Group A, received $45 million from the IOC, while sports in Group D were allocated $14 million. Group D is made up of canoe/kayaking, equestrian, fencing, handball, field hockey, sailing, taekwondo, triathlon and wrestling. The IOC’s allocations to its international federations from the revenues made in Rio have not yet been determined.

“Following the London 2012 Olympics, the FEI, as a conduit to the IOC, performed an audit of equestrian sport, which made it clear that we need to broaden and evolve equestrian sport or risk one or more disciplines being excluded from the Olympic program,” explained Torchy Millar, longtime chef d’équipe of the Canadian show jumping team and team leader for the Canadian Equestrian Team at the Rio 2016 Olympics. He was also part of the Canadian contingent onsite at the FEI General Assembly. “While opinions regarding the vote were not unanimous across all disciplines, as a national federation, EC had an obligation to consider all sides and angles in order to do what was best for equestrian sport as a whole, rather than voting based on the collective opinion of any one discipline.”

Both the North American Riders Group (NARG) and International Jumping Riders Clubs (IJRC) were opposed to the change to a three-man format arguing that there should be fewer teams of four riders and more individuals to achieve the IOC’s insistence on more “flags.” The IJRC noted that of the FEI’s 134 federations, 60 do not organize equestrian events, around 17 do not have riders, and 26 do not have horses.

“Mathematically speaking, it can therefore be affirmed that the majority of show jumping nations with eligible riders and horses is around 40 nations which have a realistic chance of being represented at the Olympic Games,” an IJRC statement concluded.

Days after the General Assembly vote, Canada’s Olympic jumping team riders spoke out against the EC’s decision to vote in favor of reducing teams to three riders. Eric Lamaze, Olympic champion in 2008 and 2016 bronze medalist, said a meeting was held in Rio to sound out the athletes. “It is hard to get all of the riders to agree on something but, on this point, the riders in Rio were unanimous; we were all against it. What the Canadian federation went forward with was not the wish of the Canadian show jumping riders. This was not the riders’ choice, and this is not what was presented to us in Rio.”

Lamaze’s teammate, Tiffany Foster, who is on the boards of both NARG and the IJRC, said she was deeply disappointed by the direction her federation took. “We wanted to be aligned with the other powerhouse nations in our sport in saying that we were against this change. Instead, Canada is now on record as saying this is what we wanted when it wasn’t.”

Final Four Axed

Delegates unanimously approved changes to the rules for championships in all three Olympic disciplines during the 2016 FEI General Assembly. Rule revisions for jumping included the elimination of the first competition and the change-of-horses final four at the world championships. Instead, there will be two competitions of two rounds each for team and individual medals with 12 individuals going through to the individual final which may be decided by a jump-off. (see fei.org for all rule revisions)

The crowd-pleasing final four format has been followed since the world championships’ inception in 1953, but in the modern day it has not been a popular feature for the riders or their horse owners. As Beezie Madden, who participated in two finals, told The Chronicle of the Horse, as well as being anxious about your own horse being ridden by others, “You don’t want anything to happen to their horse when you’re on it either.”

Her husband, John Madden, chairman of the FEI Jumping Committee, said the discussion over the eradication of the final four had been part of the competition formats package debated over the last two years. “Our sport has evolved, with the unique relationship between horse and rider firmly at its heart, and the new format ensures it is this unique partnership that is tested at the ultimate World Championship level,” he said.

Mark Samuel, Group IV chair and member of the EC Jumping committee, followed the FEI’s lead. “While a traditionalist at heart, I was guided by the recommendation of the FEI Jumping Committee and by my consultations with current and former riders, both one-on-one and through NARG, the lion share of which were diametrically opposed to continuing the Final Four format for horse welfare reasons.”

Four-Man Teams for Tryon

Despite downsizing teams in the Olympics, the General Assembly voted to keep team sizes at four for the next World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. Maintaining teams of four with three scores counting and a drop score for the WEG, September 10-23, 2018, was approved unanimously.

Las Vegas Finals

The Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final and FEI World Cup Dressage Final will return to Las Vegas in 2020. The 2020 Finals, April 15-19, will move from the Thomas & Mack arena, which had been host to the FEI end-of-season indoor championships six times since 2000, to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in the MGM Grand Hotel. High-profile sporting events and global superstars including Celine Dion, Elton John, and Britney Spears have performed at the Garden. The Scandinavium in Gothenburg, Sweden, will host the World Cup Finals in 2021 from March 31 to April 5.

Simplifying the format of equestrian sport in order to make it easier to understand and more appealing to a broader audience is a key element of the proposed changes.