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Friday 09 December - 17h19 | Ian Clayton
The stormy debate over changes to equestrian sports at the Olympics dominated the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland today, as the world’s best riders voiced their frustration over the new format to top official Sabrina Ibáñez.
Ibáñez, Secretary General of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), sat in the front row at the meeting as Swiss Olympic Show Jumping Champion Steve Guerdat attacked both the changes and what he saw as the FEI’s dismissive attitude to riders’ opinions. The new Olympic format, approved at the International Federation’s own General Assembly in Tokyo, Japan last month, would see the number of athletes in national teams reduced from four to three, and the elimination of the drop score (which allows the team’s worst score to be discarded). The FEI says the modifications are intended to increase international access to the sport at the elite level and ensure the continued place of equestrian sports in the Olympic Games. With each competing nation sending less athletes, it is argued, more countries will be able to get into the Games given the current overall maximum number of pairs allowed (200).Guerdat began his remarks by saying that he was disappointed by the absence of FEI President Ingmar De Vos from the meeting, suggesting it was symbolic of a lack of respect to himself and his fellow athletes.“There is definitely one thing that I think we riders deserve from Mr. De Vos, from the FEI, and this is called respect,” he told the Secretary General as fellow top riders looked on. “I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I think you should listen to what we say, because I don’t think any of you would be there without the riders.”Guerdat said that the Riders Club has repeatedly tried to express its opinions to the FEI about the controversial reforms, including in a letter before last month’s Tokyo General Assembly. In it, the IJRC estimated that there are only around 40 nations worldwide with eligible riders and horses that have a realistic chance of being represented at the Olympic Games. The IJRC proposed keeping 12, 13 or 14 four-rider teams at the Olympics, which would allow more space for individual riders. But this proposal was rejected by De Vos and the FEI, which Guerdat said then criticized the riders in a press release for a last-minute proposal.
Guerdat called that response “disrespectful and incorrect” given the long-standing lobbying efforts of the IJRC: “A lot of people have been hurt by this letter and by the comments,” he said. “The press release [made] us look like clowns….”The format changes will be submitted to the IOC for final approval early next year and would come into force at the 2020 Summer Games in the Japanese capital. Also at today’s meeting, Guerdat contested the view that emerging equestrian nations have sufficient skills to compete in a discipline like show jumping at a major games.“In the B-finals, you have the teams struggling to get over the course…. And [saying] that those teams have the level of what we want to show in the Olympic Games, is for me a lack of knowledge.”
After Guerdat sat down to the applause of those present in the room, Sabrina Ibáñez responded to the Swiss rider’s comments. “First of all, let me tell you one thing — we do respect you,” she asserted. Ibáñez explained that after the London Olympics in 2012, where Guerdat took the individual show jumping gold with Nino des Buissonnets, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) downgraded equestrian sports, in large part because they were not seen as accessible and relevant to a wide variety of nations and viewing publics.She said that the Federation was thus forced to find a solution to the problem after the IOC refused a request to increase the maximum number of horses and riders allowed at the Olympics in the three Olympic equestrian disciplines. “They, basically, have said to us, ‘No, you have 200, deal with it.’ We have 200, in three disciplines. And we have teams and individuals. And so 75 for jumping, that’s it! 65 for dressage and 60 for eventing.”Ibáñez contrasted that small quota with high-profile Olympic sports such as swimming and athletics, where overall athlete totals of 1,500 or 2,000 are common. “So the only solution we had was to see how we could bring more nations in with what we have,” she said. “And this is what we did. This is why the proposal is what it is today, it’s just mathematical.”Finally, the Secretary General defended the absence of FEI President De Vos from the IJRC General Assembly, which has been taking place at the same time as this weekend’s CHI in Geneva, bringing together many of the elite riders in the world, including hometown favourite Guerdat. “One more thing: when it comes to Mr. De Vos, it is true — he is not here today,” she said, “but I am here, and I’m the Secretary General. And it is my responsibility, it’s not just his responsibility. I’m here today to look at you, and to talk to you, to face you.” Ibáñez explained that the FEI President was in Hong Kong at a meeting aimed at increasing the number of 5*-level events around the world.
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