I sometimes wonder if the horse world needs the Olympics as much as we are told we need the Olympics.
Nowadays, some jumping riders give the impression of riding on national teams out of duty – they’d rather keep their top horse for the Global Champions Tour. Given a stark either/or choice, many eventers would select winning Badminton over Olympic gold. Yes, a lot of state funding depends on Olympic participation, but I am not aware much of it trickles beyond each nation’s Olympic contenders, so in that sense it is self-serving.
Being a Brit, a country with few concerns about qualifying, I am more complacent than most. But the feverishness of everyone else’s Olympic dream has never been clearer than in the run-up to Tokyo: so many shenanigans in the tussle to get a place!
Monday (February 17) was a good day to bury some of this bad news. Under a bland headline about quota allocations, the FEI’s press office masterfully dispensed the bare minimum of updates on three controversial topics.
About 90% of equestrian media is too busy servicing 24-hour news platforms to follow any of it up, so those who simply cut-and-pasted the press release missed out on providing their audience with a “good read” or in examining matters that affect our sports beyond Tokyo.
First there is the sensational claim of the Qatari jumpers that rival Morocco nobbled them at the Tokyo-qualifying show in Rabat. Daily visits to a shisha bar were described in the Tribunal decision notice that was embedded in the FEI press release. Allegations that Morocco spiked Qatar’s shisha with cannabis were bound to be missed unless the press release sign-posted it: who (apart from part-timers like me) has time to wade through 27 pages of impenetrable legal-speak?
The naivete over human doping continues to astound (this article is from two seasons ago). Because the FEI does minimal human sampling at regular shows, it must be a shock when testers blitz the Olympic qualifying events. How, though, do riders progress to top level without knowing you don’t touch anything you haven’t checked out yourself?
I loved the bit where Qatar’s team manager said he’d taken “precautions” to ensure the shisha tobacco was not the usual local Moroccan cannabis, ‘kif.’ Why not stop your riders going within 100 miles of any shisha bar in the first place?
The FEI’s recently-retired medical chief, Dr. Peter Whitehead, has spoken about recreational drug concerns for some time, but hasn’t attracted the headlines he ought. There are sessions about human doping as well as horse doping at the FEI sports forum in April. Riders should make time to watch the livestream. And read the anti-doping rules, for crying out loud. Don’t just throw questions out on social media to be answered by tweeting twits who know even less about it than you do.
A record eight riders await a Tribunal decision for positives over the past half-season – four of them at Olympic team qualifying events (Qatar x 2, Canada, Czech Republic). The potions are stimulants and recreational drugs as well as the diuretics and masking agents WADA bans because they flush other prohibited substances from the system.
Either the FEI has stepped-up rider sampling, or sampling levels remain small, but a greater proportion of riders are testing positive. Between 2007 and 2018 human positives in horse sport averaged just 1.54 a year.
I now move on to the two other neatly handled topics in Monday’s press release. The controversial format changes for Tokyo were aimed at admitting more countries – three to a team, no drop score – but have unfortunately resulted in just five more flags than Rio – 48 compared with 43. Will it be worth it? That’s another factoid warranting wider debate than it will receive.
The third topic, associated with this desperate recruitment of extra flags, was the annulment of Olympic rankings points won at the Villeneuve-Loubet, France, and Damascus, Syria 2* CSI tours in December. HorseSport.com led the way in reporting that saga so suffice to say that hundreds of rankings points for individual jumping contenders were won at these tours despite their weeny handful of starters.
The blunt truth is that not enough countries have riders of Olympic capability, even in its dumbed-down state. Advantage was always going to be taken of lop-sided playing fields in the scramble for points. Villeneuve-Loubet and Damascus were not the only venues virtually giving points away last year. They made headlines because they did it on such a contrived and industrial scale.
On top of that, should we facilitate “qualification” at a level well below the Olympic conditions, especially where riders can’t achieve the separate “MERs” – Minimum Eligibility Requirements? MER failure has already cost Ukraine, Brazil and South Africa team places.
The diverse pathways to the Olympics have always struck me as odd, even before these Games. The main contenders qualify at the major team championships. The likes of the US, GB and Germany have known they are going to Tokyo since Tryon 2018. Others had a year’s notice, since the Pan Ams and Europeans. Ample time to save your best horses so they arrive fresh at the big occasion.
But for individuals from countries with no depth (never mind strength in depth), it’s a rollercoaster ride for points and/or MERs at every conceivable show in the 18 months right up to the Games. The horses and riders most likely to be burned-out before the opening round at Tokyo are also those with least experience and ability. I cannot think of anything more horse-unfriendly (apart from desert endurance, of course.)
There are many examples of frenetic points-chasing in 2019, but oddly enough, Mathilda Karlsson and Chopin VA, the combination displaced by the FEI’s Villeneuve annulment, is as good as any to highlight how invidious it all is. Mathilda was raised in Sweden, but swapped to the nationality of her birth country, Sri Lanka, in 2018. She is Sri Lanka’s only FEI registered rider in anything, so it’s no surprise to see the Sri Lankan media reporting that the national federation is appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Mathilda won nine of her original 15 counting Olympic rankings results at the now annulled Villeneuve-Loubet shows. The Swedish media say she went to France because Chopin VA had “much of the year” off due to illness, and won most of her points thus far at considerably more competitive events early in 2019.
Again, if colleagues had time for simple checks, that isn’t quite what the FEI database shows. This has Chopin VA jumping every month of 2019 through October 25; only then a five-week break till an early December show in Paris, then the three 2* shows in Villeneuve. From January to October 25, Chopin VA jumped 56 international classes the length and breadth of Europe plus two separate trips to the US and Mexico. This left her seventh in the Far East’s qualifying group, adrift of the leaders. On previous form, could Mathilda have made it to second place by continuing to jump at 3* and above? Sorry, I don’t really see it.
There is so much more to air on all these matters. Because the FEI gave erroneously approved schedules as the reason for annulling the results, it has also cleverly by-passed discussion about the actual flaws in the rankings formula. Full points can be awarded to 16th place whether there are 10 starters or 100. You can see how crazy this became in this number crunching by worldofshowjumping.com.
One more random thing for now: people are starving and/or living under terrorist regimes in countries where the FEI sanctions horse shows. Chunks of the world are on fire or being washed away by floods. Every day an eminent scientist warns we are running out of time to curb global warming. Some countries may become uninhabitable within 50 years. Despite this, the FEI continues to promote horse sport in climates that are already horse-hostile and people-hostile.
I don’t understand why regulated equestrianism feels the need to raise expectations or consign horses to a lifetime of abject misery in this way, except of course to persuade the IOC that lots of people ride. If your homeland isn’t the ideal place for your preferred pastime, you either emigrate or choose a different one. In my twenties I hankered to do the bob-sleigh, but that isn’t realistic in rural England. I took up the viola instead and don’t believe my life is less fulfilled because of it. Just deal with it, folks.
I first wrote for the revered title Horse & Hound in 1976 and have been “round the block” many times since, so please forgive my cynicism. I am despondent that by the time I retire, equestrian sport will be in a more parlous state than when I entered it 40-odd years ago.