It’s not over till the fat lady sings.The jumping riders are not going to take the controversial Olympic format changes lying down, whatever the vote of the FEI General Assembly last month.

At the end of a sometimes heated couple of hours at Geneva show on Friday morning, the FEI offered to meet a jumpers’ delegation in the New Year to discuss how riders can be more directly engaged in rule change.

Word is now spreading that it may not yet be too late to undo at least some decisions of the “suits” that so many feel will kill top sport.

FEI president Ingmar de Vos had a long-standing engagement in Hong Kong. But FEI secretary-general Sabrina Ibanez accepted an invitation to the International Jumping Riders’ Club annual assembly on December 9 – one rider commended her for entering the “war zone.”

Aside from a battering about the unintended consequences of the changed jumping format for the Olympics, Ibanez was confronted about the lack of rider consultation. Even when riders had given their opinion to their national federation – ie the Canadians and Irish – their NFs had gone on to vote for teams of three, despite them.

The IJRC had clearly thought through some very workable alternatives.  The quality of debate was high – what a pity that rider brainpower is rarely available for sports governance till they have hung up their boots.

The jumpers were still shocked by the recent discovery, gleaned only from media reports, that for WEG the Table C round and “final four” horse-swap had been dropped. Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum asked for a show of hands from anyone who knew before this week. Not surprisingly, the only two raised belonged to journalists.

Riders queried whether Olympic format change was a definite IOC directive. If the IOC has ever put it in print, no-one outside the FEI admits to seeing it.

Ibanez explained that after the success of equestrian at London 2012, the FEI was horrified to learn the IOC was nonetheless downgrading us. The proposed changes were mathematical. Equestrian is allocated only 200 athlete slots compared with, say, swimming’s 1,500. The three-rider/no drop score format is the only way to admit more flags within that constraint: period. It will also depend on the IOC’s willingness to admit a reserve horse, by no means a certainty.

However, Steve Guerdat emphasised that the formula proposed by IJRC provided just as many new flags while retaining teams of four. IJRC presented it to the FEI many months ago. Guerdat was disappointed that De Vos had dismissed it as an ill-judged, 11th hour piece of lobbying in his published letter to IJRC president Christina Liebherr, just before the General Assembly vote.  De Vos had unfairly made the riders “look like clowns,” said Guerdat; he wasn’t willing to tolerate such “disrespect” any longer.

On the subject of “dumbing down,” there were howls of derision when Ibanez said Certificates of Capability would ensure only competent riders would participate in the new-look Olympics. Lamaze insisted jumping was inherently dangerous, yet people not up to it would now have a go having been presented with the prospect of going to the Olympics, without realising the many steps between starting out and elite sport.

Cian O’Connor remarked that if a runner from Outer Mongolia is five minutes behind the rest, no harm is done. But if his jumping equivalent crashes and burns, that provides exactly the “bad pictures” that horse sport strives to avoid. Isabell Werth, a guest at the meeting, wondered why the FEI was so keen on involving many more flags; she didn’t think athletics obsessed about the possibility of 3,000 metre final with no Europeans in it.

There was a lot of discussion about FEI decisions being fatefully in the hands of the national federations, where the balance of power is overwhelmingly controlled by countries of little or no horse heritage.

Eleonora Ottaviani, the IJRC director, described her demoralising attempts to explain the jumpers’ point of view to delegates from the smaller equestrian countries during the General Assembly. Her account of one conversation, with a federation that had a 12-year-old rider and 14-year-old rider and so only needed one more to form a team  of three, would have been hilarious had then situation not been so serious. Guerdat said that of the 134 FEI member federations, 60 didn’t organise shows, 17 didn’t have any FEI registered riders and 26 no horses at all, yet all have equal voting rights to the countries at the top of  elite sport. There were 21 federations – so 21 votes – with only 15 riders between them.

Ottaviani remarked that other sports federations did not admit, or at least give voting rights to, countries who could not prove a minimum level of participation. However, as I discussed this time last year, the FEI will never be able to introduce an “associate” membership in hindsight. The situation is so skewed that dozens of countries would have to vote in favour of their own demotion!

This crazy, upside-down influence is also why, in my view, reform is so slow in the organised horse abuse that masquerades as FEI endurance in the Middle East. Yes, I know that’s my pet topic but there is relevance here.

The rate of doping/horse deaths/cheating/attrition/fraud we already know about would already have galvanised any other governing body to suspend endurance in that region for years rather than months, until it sorts itself out and/or adopts Bou Thib protocols. But where’s the motive for small national federations to call time out on the UAE? Aside from any economic or political affiliations, many small countries benefitted from support and the “Solidarity” programmes promoted during the FEI presidency of Princess Haya and are hardly going to stab her in-laws in the back.

I hope riders from the three Olympic disciplines will try to meet to discuss problems of mutual concern in future, even if they can’t change much with this one.

The jumpers were justified in criticising the lack of direct consultation between FEI and riders over these massively important three-to-a-team issues. But equally, riders don’t seem very aware of what their fellow Olympic disciplines have been saying on the same matter for the past two years.  Lamaze’s comments about the fate of horses whose riders are not up to Olympic standards could just as easily have come from Mark Todd or Harry Meade who (among other big names) have so ably articulated the impact of format change on eventing.

The IJRC invited Monica Theoderescu and Werth to the Geneva meeting to give the dressage perspective, and their contributions drew applause.
I have heard Theoderescu make the same points – that format change is not the firm will of the IOC, and that dressage has repeat negative experiences of three to a team – on other occasions. But at the FEI sports forum in April, I noticed that some eventing delegates were not in the hall while the other disciplines had their say.  Anyway, some inter-sport dialogue is now underway.

Will turn of the year herald a climb-down by the FEI? Who knows, but that 300lb soprano isn’t quite ready to step on stage.


Tags: IRJC, FEI, Final Four,