Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

(Official) Demise of the World Equestrian Games and New Championships

Pippa Cuckson is relieved the next world championships have been awarded to specialist organisers – though endurance 2022 may still present a dilemma.

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By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Given my long-held dislike of the all-sports-in-one basket World Equestrian Games format, various friends have asked why I hadn’t immediately celebrated WEG’s demise, when the FEI announced its multiple 2022 world championship allocations on November 16th.

I’d held off, waiting for the delayed decisions on endurance and reining. Their 2022 world championships were to be announced after make-or break-votes at the FEI General Assembly (GA) in Moscow on November 19th, over new rules and retention within the FEI respectively.

But it turns out that deciding “after” November 19th did not mean while everyone is still in Moscow. The FEI board won’t finalise these last two world championships until its December tele-conference. I’ve also been half-waiting for news that bidding will be re-opened for endurance 2022, because options shrink by the day – more of that below.

The FEI has a proclivity for self-harm, so I would not have been surprised if it had gone for another full-blown WEG, despite conceding after Tryon that the format isn’t sustainable. It must have been very tempting to choose WEG Italy or Saudi Arabia.

But luckily, common sense prevailed. World championships for 2022 have so far been split between two countries with a strong heritage in the Olympic disciplines, especially. Jumping, dressage, para and vaulting goes to Herning, Denmark, and eventing and driving to Pratoni, Italy.

Italy had been willing to accept a smaller-scale event if not awarded the full WEG and might, presumably still be willing to take reining now that its future within the FEI seems secure. (Riyadh and Scottsale, USA, were the other reining bidders.)

Like many fans, I was sorry not to see Millstreet in Ireland get the eventing. They might have done better by bolting on the driving as well, but I gather they were rather short-sightedly advised against. I hope they try again for 2026.

The WEG concept lumbered on so long after its sell-by date that only the over-50s will remember the great stand-alone world championships up to 1986 – eventing at Burghley, England; jumping at Aachen, Germany; dressage in Cedar Valley, Canada; driving at Apeldoorn, The Netherlands. All locations renowned for top class equine and spectator facilities. It was always easy to find a good choice of affordable hotels and ample places to eat, on or off site, rather than be held to ransom by the organiser.

The overall Italian WEG bid looked good on paper, but its three main venues were up to 500km apart, and – unlike Rome WEG 1998 – none of them within 50km of the capital! That defeated the long-forgotten, original objective of enabling all of the spectators to watch all of the sports, all of the time.
The Saudi bid came somewhat out of the blue, though sits well within its recent use of sport to promote gender equality and cultural and social change in that kingdom.

In the past few months, Saudi Arabia also made online tourist visas much easier for many countries; on the website for the upcoming CSI at the farm of London 2012 team bronze medallist Ramzy Al Duhami’s, you can click straight through to a visa application page.

I can well understand why the FEI would want to play a part in all that. Also, for the first time since WEG Aachen 2006, it needn’t have worried about an organiser running out of money.

However, while Saudi is being helped by hugely experienced UK-based organiser Horsepower, there were surely too many other obstacles to its successful running of WEG from a standing start?

Saudi Arabia has no prior involvement in organising anything but show jumping and endurance. While 25% of its 325 FEI-registered show jumpers are female, it nonetheless declined to allow females to ride in its high profile new endurance international at Al Ula last February.

A Saudi WEG would have taken place relatively late in the fall, mid-October, but it cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that the 2019 world athletics championship in Qatar suffered from intolerable heat, much worse than anticipated, at the beginning of October, and drew minimal spectators too.

Several months ago I asked the FEI about the Saudi bid; what and where would the cross-country and driving marathon courses comprise and be staged? Were the arena-based sports indoors or outside? Was the FEI concerned about the Saudi stance over alcohol and homosexuality etc. etc.? I received only a generalised reply.

Saudi has, though, been awarded the FEI World Cup finals for jumping and dressage in spring 2024, a smaller scale event that also gives its hoped-for, more open society two extra years to start bedding-in. It will be organised by Horsepower, in the brand new, air conditioned Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Some will also hope that by 2024, Saudi Arabia (and the other Gulf states who blockaded Qatar in 2017 due to its alleged extremist links) will be re-admitting Qatari riders. At the moment, Qatari nationals are barred from entering Saudi Arabia. However, many Middle Eastern commentators hope that this current soccer tournament plus Doha’s staging of the 2022 FIFA World Cup final will hasten a thaw in relations. Qatar has a huge presence on the global show jumping stage. To exclude them from a FEI championship would be very awkward indeed.

I was surprised the FEI did not make more noise about giving a first-ever global final to the Middle East. The UAE unsuccessfully applied for both World Cup finals jumping and world championship jumping in 2022. Rejection must have been quite a kick in the teeth. However, relations between UAE and FEI are strained over the new endurance rules, so I doubt FEI hierarchy is worrying too much about hurting their feelings right now…..

I feel sorry for the UAE jumpers, though. Their top jumping riders are exemplary, well-liked on the international circuit and utterly blameless for the dire reputation of endurance in their country.

This moves us to the dilemma over where to place the FEI World Endurance Championships 2022. The original bidders were Italy and Saudi Arabia (as part of a WEG,) Samorin in Slovakia, Padise in Estonia, Ermelo in the Netherlands and UAE.

Samorin has since dropped out, for reasons not publicly disclosed, as has Ermelo, having unusually been awarded consecutive senior Europeans in 2021 and 2023. Saudi probably isn’t favoured for the reasons discussed above. If Italy was the most likely choice on merit, surely there was no reason to delay that announcement?

The UAE still appears to want to host endurance 2022, despite its increasing self-exile from FEI sport. Presumably in protest at the new rules, UAE has affiliated only a handful of rides this winter – not even the President’s Cup, the world’s toughest and richest race. Furthermore, Dubai was stripped of hosting the 2016 world championship because the FEI felt horse welfare could not be guaranteed. Does the UAE believe the rest of the world regards conditions in the desert as having improved?

This just leaves Padise, an attractive-looking venue with coastal views, but run by the feisty Jelena Sbitneva, just about the only person anywhere else in the world who is prepared to publicly support desert endurance.

Ms Sbitneva also did not exactly endear herself to the FEI in during last week’s GA in Moscow. She gave a strongly critical interview about the FEI’s endurance proposals to Russian equestrian magazine Gold Mustang, for their special GA edition.

After apparent complaints, Gold Mustang re-printed it without the offending article, a massively expensive undertaking. Yet they still posted Ms Sbvitneva’s article online, where it could be read by a great many more people than the national federation delegates assembled in Moscow! Gold Mustang’s media credentials from the GA were revoked – whether by the FEI itself or by the Russian national federation is not clear.

I and others have written innumerable critical pieces about the FEI for years without having accreditations denied. To date, the FEI just hasn’t done “censorship.” I referred this incident to our industry body, the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists (IAEJ), though so far IAEJ’s investigations have drawn a blank.

It is also rumoured the FEI has contemplated removing the 2020 world endurance championships from UAE-linked Pisa in Italy, where there was a serious allegation of threatening behaviour towards an official in September which went way beyond the sort of behaviour usually dealt with by yellow card. The FEI board discussed Pisa during its closed meeting Moscow.

If Pisa is re-allocated, who, frankly, remains available to take it on that is devoid of some kind of UAE-related baggage? Maybe the FEI will give up running endurance world championships altogether. It’s not as if endurance riders are unused to that kind of disappointment.

RIP WEG

HRH Prince Philip was president of the FEI for 20 years, in an era when horsemen tended to be multi-faceted. In the early 1980s he suggested combining all the world championships in a capital city for a one-off celebration, enabling people to watch the very best of disciplines they might not usually attend.

Stockholm 1990 was chosen, underpinned by Volvo, then the leading sponsor of FEI sport. Everything took place in and around the 1956 Olympic stadium and the Swedish capital’s extensive green parks.

I was lucky enough to be there from start to finish, and it was fabulous. So many memories – Ian Stark and Murphy Himself bouncing the road-crossing, John Whitaker and the super-grey Milton in the now defunct horse-swapping jumping finale, the iconic silhouette of Becky Hart and Grand Sultan scaling an almost sheer escarpment, Nicole Uphoff and Rembrandt heralding a lighter style of dressage.

Stockholm WEG was notable for only a minority of spectators buying tickets for more than a couple of disciplines. Stockholm was, though, almost too good, so the FEI decided to repeat the WEG. And repeat and repeat, even when organisers went bust and organisers almost had to be begged to apply.

Paris was originally awarded WEG 1994 but it then emerged the Mayor, one Jacques Chirac, knew nothing about it and had not pledged municipal support. 1994 ended up at The Hague in the Netherlands, and I’m pretty sure that if it had been the first ever WEG the concept would have been trashed straight away. Until Normandy 2014, The Hague held the title of Worst Ever Games. For unfathomable reasons, the organising committee declined offers of help from the likes of Rotterdam or Boekelo, and it was a logistical disaster. They filed for bankruptcy a month later.

On the premise of government support the FEI awarded 1998 to Dublin, but then Ireland’s new political leadership changed its mind. Italy stepped in at under 12 months’ notice, though spread events across multiple venues and didn’t want the endurance, which was switched to Abu Dhabi.

WEG Jerez, Spain in 2002 broke even, though admitted to “cash flow” problems; some contractors were not paid till 2003. The government complained publicly about the cost of the eventing cross-country.

Aachen 2006 is also understood to have broken even. But the inability of the world’s most famous permanent venue to make a stonking great profit underlined that eight disciplines together do not result in economies of scale.

Kentucky 2010 also should have prospered – the first time any world championship had been staged outside Europe since 1986 – also based at a famous existing facility. Yet despite title sponsorship of $10 million and goods and services worth $20 million from Alltech, and $70 million in public support, it finished $1.4 million in the red.

Half the original 64m Euro budget for WEG Normandy 2014, also sponsored by Alltech, was met by the public sector, though its escalating cost and logistical nightmares caused the FEI to commission a major viability study. Stakeholders seemed to want to retain the concept, but with fewer competitors and a shorter, 10-day time-frame.

Bromont was initially turned down for WEG 2018, but was reconsidered after apparently obtaining government support, and was given the nod as the last-man standing. But then Ottawa turned out not to have been asked for money in a timely way. Tryon, US stepped in with just 18 months to go. The rest is history….

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