In dressage, everyone has a personal opinion on the rights and wrongs of judging being a matter of personal opinion.

But there is a limit, as we are reminded with the recent dismissal of the appeals of Ukrainians Iryna Shulga and Maria Dzhumadzuk against their three-month suspensions for “nationalistic” judging at Lier in Belgium from March 1-2 this year.

This was one of many shows chased by Rio hopefuls in the frantic last few weeks of individual Olympic qualifying, particularly in Europe.

You can read the long FEI Tribunal decision notices here and here. The two cases were heard together, for the appellants’ defences were much the same.

Of course, the Tribunal heard a lot of dressage-related argument about subjectivity. The appellants even argued that the FEI itself was ultimately responsible for controversial judging, as setter of the subjective criteria.

There was also much legal argument about the FEI’s alleged haste in punishing the pair. The FEI dressage committee had also recommended they be demoted one-star level each. There was criticism of FEI legal process and limited access to FEI correspondence about the case.

To summarise the decision, the Tribunal ruled that the suspensions were not excessive and that Shulga and Dzhumadzuk breached the FEI judges’ Codex on neutrality. They scored their compatriot Inna Logutenkova, riding Fleraro, significantly higher than the three non-Ukrainian judges on the panel in the Grand Prix Special, the last of the show’s four Grand Prix classes on March 2nd.

Dzhumadzuk gave Fleraro 73.236% and Shulga 74.412%. Their respective marks were 8% and 9% above the average, Dzhumadzhuk ranking Fleraro third of 15 starters and Shulga second. The other judges put Fleraro 11th, 13th and second to bottom, for seventh place overall on an aggregate 68.627%.

For all other horses in the Special, the Ukrainian judges’ marks deviated from the rest by just 2%. Lier then immediately staged what was technically a separate show from March 3-6. On March 4th, the FEI emailed the Lier organisers that because of complaints about March 2nd, one Ukrainian only should officiate per Grand Prix class.

Among other evidence, Stephen Clarke provided a General Judge report, his words endorsed by five other senior judges. Clarke said the Ukrainians acted in “an unfair and unsportsmanlike way, with a blatant over-marking who brought the sport and the judges into disrepute” and that they had to expect “consequences.”

All 15 riders’ results from the Special were later disregarded for Olympic qualifying purposes.

In their defence, Shulga, Dzhumadzuk and the Ukraine federation said FEI regulations do not define nationalistic judging. FEI had concocted “incoherent argumentation” only after deciding to penalise Ukraine, issuing a press release without the Ukrainians’ side of the story.

The FEI had deliberately “victimised” Ukraine by making an example of it “during the stressful days of the end of the Olympic qualifications.” This occurred, claimed the appellants, because Ukraine is not a major dressage nation, while controversies in strong dressage countries are rarely addressed. The Lier organisers claimed their reputation was damaged by association.

The appellants say they had no motive for over-marking Fleraro. The same rider got a qualifying place for Rio with Don Gregorius when also judged by them, and no one questioned that. Shulga said Fleraro had showed incremental improvement in his last six shows. However, the Tribunal preferred the FEI view – Shulga should judge what she saw on the day, not by prior knowledge.

The appellants cited an article by FEI consultant Dr. David Stickland, published in 2009, in which he analysed 13,000 CDI results. Where there was evidence of nationalistic judging, Stickland found that judges tended to mark down riders from other countries rather than mark-up their compatriots – the opposite of Lier.

However, the Tribunal did “not consider a simple reference to a general article dating back seven years as sufficient evidence.”

Is there still more to the Lier fiasco than has been revealed in the legal matters pertinent to the two judges?

The Tribunal decided that three members of its panel (Henrik Arle, Chris Hodson QC and Erik Elstad) should hear the case. The norm is one member for anything that isn’t about major horse abuse or doping. But in this instance, the Tribunal felt “there may be a lot at stake not only for the appellants but for the whole dressage sport.”

If nothing else, to me the FEI should take a long hard look at the qualifying process for Olympic individuals and where they are staged, in the increasingly tense few weeks before cut-off.

The process may change anyway, because of the new formats for 2020, though the existing process is tough on capable individuals from countries without enough good Grand Prix riders to mount a team. We saw that in the earlier case of Portuguese rider Goncalo Cavalho , one of the two parties who lodged protests about Lier.

Rio was not the first time the flurry of shows providing 11th-hour qualifying opportunities have resulted in legal appeals. In 2012, one ended up at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Lier is part of World Dressage Masters sponsored by VIAN Group, who also sponsor Logutenkova. The Lier show director Iuliia Parkhomenko is deputy director of VIAN Group. Mykhaylo Parkhomchuk, also a VIAN director, chairs the Ukraine federation’s dressage committee.

Three-star CDIs this side of the pond often look just over the border to invite the obligatory “foreign” judges. Some European countries are so small you can drive across them in four hours, so it is easy to contain the travel costs of officials. Yet three Ukrainians, one Russian and one Belarussian travelled the equivalent of Montreal to Mississippi to officiate at Lier.

On the one hand, Lier was well sponsored and could probably afford it, so it was a good opportunity to give judges experience outside eastern Europe. But on the other hand, it all looks too cosy, in the light of the 10 Olympic points-qualifying shows organised at Zhashkiv, Ukraine by some of the same personnel as Lier in the 12 months leading up to the cut-off date for London 2012. The Zhashkiv shows drew sceptical comment at the time; in the last two, there were only four and two horses respectively in the Grand Prix.

Under current regulations, the FEI does not decide/approve who officiates at non-championship events.

The FEI would neither confirm or deny this directly when I asked them this week, but I reckon it was a weeny bit worried about Lier beforehand. The Judges Supervisory Panel (JSP) would not normally pitch up at a three-star CDI. But the FEI has confirmed they asked David Hunt, a JSP founder-member since 2012, to attend the first day only of Lier to “observe.” They have not elaborated on why they felt observation was necessary at Lier but nowhere else. And it’s kinda interesting that as soon as Hunt had left the venue, the judging ran amok!