The FEI’s new Olympic format has been the subject of much debate and discussion recently, but what is all the fuss about? Does it really matter if there are three riders in a team or four? Surely dropping the eventing down a star level is a good thing if more riders can compete? Why the need for reform in the first place? Here is the dummies guide!

More Flags = More Money

The FEI is not driving the process. Two years ago, the IOC asked several sports to come up with reforms to “take the Olympics beyond 2016.” Superficially this was the IOC asking minority sports to find ways to become more inclusive. But, as most of the sports mentioned were those with high running costs such as sailing in addition to small participation rates, which has resulted them being downgraded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), this was also about expense as well as diversity…but you won’t hear about that quite so much!

It is important to note that the Olympic Games statutes only allow for so many sports, which has been set at the 25-28 mark for some years, and there are always new ones waiting for inclusion. Although it has been decided that there will be an increase in this number for Tokyo 2020, usually one sport needs to be dropped before another can take its place. As the IOC makes 47 per cent of its revenue on broadcast rights, the large TV appeal of some of the popular new sports are potentially very lucrative. Consequently, baseball, surfing, karate, sports climbing and skateboarding are appearing for the first time in Japan, but on a one off, test the water basis of just 18 total medal winning opportunities and just over 400 athletes. If one of those is permanently added to the roster subsequently, another sport is likely to go to make way for it.

Who Gets To Vote

The FEI has spent two years debating how to have more flags represented. They’ve asked their various committees to report and (supposedly) canvassed the riders and officials before announcing their plans. Unfortunately, most of the nations doing the voting on this matter have absolutely no chance of assembling a team for such a high level event. In fact, 40 of the 170 nations that voted do not have international equestrian competitors at all, but due to the FEI unique system of one country = one vote, these nations can still cast a vote on international sport matters in which they have either no interest or experience or both. This is a rather contentions issue, as most other sports bodies only allow such voting from nations who actively participate.

Number of Olympic Riders

The IOC allots 200 athletes per sport, and as Equestrianism is considered one sport that number gets divided between the three disciplines. Nobody wants fewer riders, so the only way to appease the IOC is to amp up diversity with more flags. The more nations that compete, the more potential broadcast revenue, and the less likely the sport will be voted out at the next IOC meeting. It is as simple as that, but it’s how that was achieved that is so problematic.

The FEI introduced three-man teams to keep within the IOC’s athlete allotment while still increasing the number of countries. The problem is that this also raises the likelihood of showcasing bad riding as there is a reason those countries didn’t qualify before and it’s usually because of a lack of experience and/or ability. The FEI insists that the IOC wants more diversity over top competition, so down this road we go.

To overcome the welfare concern that a three-man team with no drop score would put serious pressure on riders to compete on an unsound horse, substitutions DURING competition have now been introduced. The exact details of how this would work have not yet been revealed, but the implications of this are not great for welfare either. You could run your horse across country, for example, rather faster than usual to score less penalties, knowing that if it was not sound enough to show jump, your substitute (who might be a demon show jumper that won’t jump into water) could take your place. Not quite sure what that scenario would do for team selection now you think about it as well. Will eventing selection be about all round performance over three phases, or will a horse weak in one, but exceptional in another be selected as it could be substituted before or after its weak phase?

Sport Specific Changes

Eventing: The Olympic competition has been dropped down a star level, which automatically drops the Minimum Entry Requirement (MER), so that more nations can conceivably field a team. As completion at an Olympic Games automatically qualifies a combination for continental championships, the FEI have had to downgraded those as well…the World Championships will now be a 3* cross country. Eventers may argue that the Olympic Games weren’t the pinnacle of the sport in the first place, the 4* three day events still hold that honour.

Jumping: While eventers are used to the Olympics not being the best, the jumpers are not, which is why they are so irate. The Olympic Games were pure, the best of the best. There is never a fluke winner, which has happened at the World Championships because of the final four horse swop (does anyone really think Abdullah Al Sharbatly was a better rider than either Rodrigo Pessoa or Eric Lamaze in 2010)…which is also gone, but that’s another post.

The previous Olympic format saw horse and rider jump a minimum of five rounds over four days to earn an individual medal, so there was no room to hide at the finish. The new format has dropped the opening speed round and the individual contest will be held over a regular two-round jump-off style contest ON THE FIRST DAY.

Riders no longer need to prove their form over a number of days over several types of courses. The new format will have no such excitement. There won’t be any build-up of tension over the five days. The course designers will have to find a way to sort everyone out on the first day using height, time and technical difficulty, which could be very tiring for the horses.

The problem is that strange things happen with this shorter format. With fewer rounds, there is more opportunity for surprising (and maybe undeserving) results… especially if the height is dropped to accommodate less experienced riders.

Dressage: This discipline has got off rather lightly as the three-man team idea has already been trialled and accepted in the past. However, it is now proposed that the competition will have shorter tests and it will be run in heats similar to the winning round type contest in show jumping. Only the winner of each heat will go through to the final. Tough break if you happen to be drawn against Isabel Werth or Charlotte Dujardin. Your percentage is not going to count as much as your position in the draw and surely this will prevent the Freestyle Final containing all the very best combinations?

Para-Equestrian: Going back to diversity, three riders per team at the Paralympics has an even more thorny problem. There are five grades. So how, if you are a nation like Great Britain or the USA who have riders in all of them, do you choose which ones to take? How does one choose between someone born with a disability like Sophie Christiansen or one that has disability thrust upon him like Pepo Puch, if they were both riding for the same nation? That is why Great Britain voted against that change. Who would even want to try making such a choice? Luckily, I am never likely to have to make such a choice as surely the last instance is the very definition of discrimination and as far from diversity as one can get regardless of how many flags get to compete.

Perhaps it is about time for horse sport to look at what the real value of being an Olympic sport is. The TV coverage is going down, many countries have already relegated it to secondary channels and recorded highlights, you cannot use sponsors logos or prefixes so will Rolex or Longines really care if their sponsored riders are not present? Perhaps the money invested in desperately clutching every straw to keep horse sport in the Olympics might be better spent improving and promoting the World Championships, where ultimately horse sport is controlled by horse people and not by TV companies, McDonald’s and any other official affiliate of the IOC who have as much interest in equestrian as I have in quantum physics.