A number of shows and events are still clinging to the hope they may run in the fall, so I was surprised at the decision to cancel something not due to take place for another 15 months.
This is the FEI’s sacrifice of the summer 2021 European Championships in jumping, dressage, eventing and para, to keep the focus on the Olympic Games. The revised Tokyo dates were just too close to the August Europeans.
It cannot have been an easy decision, of course, though I hope no one lives to regret it. A melting pot like these deferred Olympics will have more difficulty mitigating the risks of coronavirus in a densely-populated city like Tokyo than would a continental equestrian championship in relatively spacious outdoor surroundings.
The logistics for a European championship are vast, of course, but less complicated than the Olympic Games. All but the Irish (and Maltese and Cypriot riders, if they have any!) could truck the whole way there by road/tunnel in an emergency. On balance, I believe the Europeans would have had a better chance than Tokyo of actually going ahead next year ‒ the least/worst chance of being cancelled, anyway.
There is no intention to re-schedule the Europeans later in 2021, even if it had meant involving new venues. I don’t know if others were canvassed about being on standby should the outlook change. Certainly riders had no inkling cancellation was in the offing.
One reason for making this call so soon is that, while some countries have the strength and depth to mount separate Olympic and European teams, it would work against a level playing field. That’s a strange point of view, because the FEI has never minded that the Olympic Games is the most unlevel playing field of all.
European riders ranked in the world top 50 have always had to stay at home while riders outside the top 200 crash out in the opening jumping leg of an Olympic Games, fail to execute the right number of tempi changes, or are unseated early on in the cross-country. In equestrian, the Olympics is not about the best in the world ‒ it’s about the best each of many unequal territories can supply.
Qualifying for Tokyo has been some of the least equitable I can recall. South Africa obtained a dressage ticket through being the only team at their qualifying event. Others were enabled to qualify at a lower level of competition, and then spent the rest of 2019 scrambling to meet the competency based Minimum Eligibility Requirement (MER.) Three countries had to return Tokyo team places due to MER failure.
The European championship decision also means that many super-talented riders from the epicentre of equestrian sport now have no senior medal opportunity until at least the 2022 worlds. Moreover, by 2022 we will have had three years without a significant team championship decided by the tried-and-tested four-to-a-team format. I hope the FEI does not fashion this hiatus into an excuse to scrap four-horse teams for good. It would be depressing to be lumbered with no drop score and the “substitute rider” option at every type of team championship in future. As things stand, spectators having their first encounter with eventing at Tokyo will form a very skewed impression of what the all-round equestrian test is meant to involve.
No one needs reminding about the sacrifice each of us is making during this pandemic. Nonetheless, I feel especially sorry for the European riders whose great horse has maybe just one or two big seasons left in it, and to the younger generation whose educational pathway demands European experience as a necessity.
Having a horse on your national team remains a huge incentive to be an owner in Europe, too, irrespective of whether it is the Europeans, Olympics or Worlds in any given year. Many owners will already be re-evaluating their future involvement because of the impact of Covid-19 on their personal situations. The improved chance of achieving their team dream in 2021 might have encouraged some to hang on in there ‒ national selectors would have needed at least 11 different combinations to service two separate championship events. But now that hope is dashed.
Because of the large number of active equestrian countries in Europe, there are two divisions of the jumping Nations Cup. The top division has suffered from the Global Champions Tour, but the lower division has importance for European team selection purposes. (To call it the ‘lower’ division misleads about the standard, by the way ‒ even 2012 Olympic team champions Great Britain have spent a season in the second European division.) But now there is nothing to aim for 2021, will support of Nations Cup shows drop even further?
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, was slated to host the five-sport 2021 Europeans ‒ a first-time event of this scale for the central/Eastern European bloc. This was a big ask for Hungary, whose expertise in staging top-level competitions mainly hinges around driving (which goes ahead, of course.) Budapest would have staged everything but endurance and eventing ‒ the latter at Haras du Pin in France.
I can’t help wondering that the all-sports-in-one-basket approach affected the decision, too. It would have been a horrendous financial hit for Budapest to be told the Europeans were off six months further down the line. The French would like the eventing next time, but there is no indication the Hungarians want first dibs for everything else in 2023.
If the 2021 European hosts had been seasoned organisers like Aachen, Hickstead, Rotterdam, Luhmuhlen or Blenheim, the FEI might have been able to defer this decision to a time when we know how the New Normal will look, assuming no one is stricken by an even more damaging second wave of the virus.
But there’s the rub. Even before Covid-19, fewer venues were applying to host the array of FEI continental and world championships, to the point that some were uncontested. I believe some organisers are just fed up with paying inflated FEI affiliation fees for major championships, and having to accommodate and entertain personnel who are not essential to the running of the event. All this can add a six-figure sum to the operating budget over and above a normal four- or five-star show.
While it is true that some championship bidders don’t reveal their hands right up to the application deadline, just look through the bid status document for the next few years. Major venues are not in the mix like they used to be. It is good that others have the chance ‒ but not good that historic venues believe podium events are no longer worth the trouble.
Moreover, 20 years ago we’d already know who would be holding any category of championship two or three years hence. Yet for 2020, some end-of-year FEI championships in developing regions might as well be cancelled anyway ‒ no one wanted to stage them in the first place. The 2021 south American jumping and all 2021 European youth dressage championships are still looking for a home ‒ the latter scenario is somewhat alarming, given the popularity of dressage this side of the pond. No organiser wants the 2021 Asian championships in any Olympic discipline. Only France and Italy are bidding for reining-anything, despite the clamour to keep reining in the FEI family when threatened with ejection last year.
There are blanks for 2022, too, even though those lesser championships are due to be decided by the FEI board at its June 2020 teleconference.
The FEI still hasn’t decided hosts for the 2022 reining and endurance worlds, despite allocating all other disciplines last year. A decision about endurance will be especially tricky. The remaining bidders include Saudi Arabia, which has a horrendous doping record right now, and Dubai, the country at the center of the welfare and cheating scandals. This past winter, Dubai effectively dropped out of running FEI rides while still, it seems, wanting to stage an FEI medal event.
FEI finances, like everyone else’s, have taken a serious hit with this protracted inactivity. It will need affiliation fee revenue next season like never before ‒ but who will be in a position to stump up? I envisage some of the more ‘fringe’ medal championships being shelved in perpetuity, if no one can afford to run them and the FEI cannot subsidise them. These should not, though, include the senior Europeans!