A “record” 52 riders are contesting the upcoming athlete elections: so gushed a recent FEI press release. Well, it wouldn’t exactly be difficult to create a record: it is only the second time these elections have been held and – like any other new concept that people didn’t quite get at the outset – awareness first time round was inevitably muted.
Still, you can only applaud that so many active international riders want to shape the future by serving as athlete representatives on the FEI sports technical committees for the next four years. Despite the FEI’s random efforts to engage a more diverse population in policy-making, turn up at any FEI forum and you’ll quickly notice that 95 per cent of equestrian politicians are gray-haired and gray-suited.
So, in view of the surge in interest for the 2018 renewal, I hope the FEI doesn’t regret slashing voting rights to the elite few hundred riders, drivers and vaulters that have competed at recent Olympics and/or world championships. This mass disenfranchisement is a total contradiction of everything done – some of it arguably to the detriment of sporting prowess – to embrace the emerging equestrian nations.
The voting change was suggested last summer by the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) https://horsesport.com/cuckson-report/voting-rights-and-wrongs/ Their opposite numbers in dressage and eventing knew nothing about it till the ink was dry, and tell me they would have opposed it, had they realised in time. The FEI’s rationale for implementation was that very few people voted in 2014 – just 431 of 10,855 eligible riders.
That decision was surely premature, and the voting system should have been re-evaluated only if there is an equally poor response in 2018. Heaven help us, though, if the relative proportions do remain the same – there will more candidates than voters!
The new system means that many small national federations now have no voting riders at all. That is probably what the IJRC had in mind; when their proposal was first mooted, the elite jumpers were still smarting that the unpopular Olympic format changes were over-influenced by minor nations who may never field a single contender at any Games.
But the new system doesn’t mean that stronger nations won’t still be collectively outvoted by minor players. If you rode in a team of three that your country managed to cobble up for a WEG you’ll get a vote, even if you didn’t complete. But if you have won medals at recent Pan Ams or European championships, or regularly ride on winning Nations Cup teams, but happen not to have made the cut for Kentucky 2010, London 2012, Normandy 2014 or Rio 2016, you won’t. Go figure.
There are a staggering 10 riders each going for the eventing and vaulting seats, eight for para-dressage (including the sole Canadian contender, Lauren Barwick), eight for endurance, seven for driving, and four each for jumping and reining.
Unless deals are done and a few candidates drop out beforehand in favour of a like-minded candidate, it is feasible that several winners will not be the first choice of 80 per cent of the electorate – that’s democracy for you. I wondered if that tactic had already been applied in dressage where there are only two candidates – Patrik Kittel (Sweden) and Beatrice Ferrar-Salat (Spain). But I am assured they were the only Grand Prix riders who decided to give it a go.
Cian O’Connor (Ireland) and William Fox-Pitt (GB) are by far the biggest names standing for the jumping and eventing seats respectively. Intriguingly, Sweden has put forward two high profile candidates for eventing, Niklas Lindback and Ludvig Svennerstal. The US has not, interestingly, fielded anyone in the three main Olympic disciplines, but has the greatest number of candidates elsewhere. James Fairclough and Chester Weber both go for driving, Meg Sleeper endurance, Devon Maitozo vaulting, and Erin Alberda para-dressage.
Most candidates are playing it safe in their published Letters of Motivation. In theory, there is little to be gained by promoting radical views because the athlete’s representative is meant to convey the opinions of all his peers, not push a personal agenda. In general, though, I was a bit surprised to see so little electioneering on the hottest topics in FEI sport. I might have blinked at the wrong time when reading all 52 letters, but I don’t think I saw much said about blood-in-mouth, blood-on-sides, frangible pins, ranking and invitation systems, rollkur or pay cards.
Naturally, I am especially interested about the endurance election. Candidates, like electors, must also have competed in recent world championships or Olympics, with the extra caveat that any rider with a doping record is barred. This means only three riders from the UAE – where else? – were eligible to stand. I doubt they have lost much sleep over this, probably reckoning the UAE has ample closet supporters in positions of power already. The UAE would have had only two possible endurance candidates if the cut-off point for doping offences was 2009, not 2010.
I was certainly relieved when Meg Sleeper announced her bid for the endurance seat. She is a veterinarian as well as a rider, steeped in the sport’s classical values. She is also seemingly the most likely to continue the efforts of outgoing athlete Valerie Kanavy to emphasise better completion rates. The other endurance committee members give every impression of not doing much to reduce attrition, or to discourage big money desert racing-style rides where there is every incentive to push horses way beyond their limits.
But then there was another pleasant surprise – the candidacy of Saudi rider Tarek Taher, a veteran who is respected outside the Middle East and who was on the scene well before the UAE burst in and corrupted it. Who would have thought the only endurance candidate openly talking about the elephant in the room comes would be the one from the stricken region itself?
Far from merely reciting that meaningless phrase “welfare is paramount,” Tarek openly points to his sport’s simultaneous “evolution and deterioration.” “Doping has become a complex reality, especially with the pharmacological and technological developments,” writes Tarek. “Illegal enhancing drugs have no place in our sport. I am willing to go the extra mile to bring back true endurance, clean endurance. Let’s just do it!”
My cap is well and truly doffed – though I also can’t help worrying that Tarek’s anti-doping stance might actually cost him some votes…
Online voting starts July 29th, with results to be announced shortly after the WEG. Candidate details here.