Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 2)

Credit : Scoopdyga

Monday 09 January - 17h12 | Ian Clayton and Sébastien Roullier

Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 2)

In the first part of GrandPrix-Replay’s look at politics in the equestrian world, an overview was given of where high-level equestrian sports are currently practiced around the planet. Today in Part 2, we look at the proposed reforms to equestrian sports at the Olympic Games which have caused so much controversy. What are these reforms exactly, and why were they proposed? 

"The London Olympics in 2012 Were an Enormous Success"

The London Olympics in 2012 Were an Enormous Success - Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 2)

London 2012
Credit : Scoopdyga

For Part 1, click here  

For more on last month’s face-to-face confrontation between riders and International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez in Geneva, Switzerland, see here

Before explaining the controversial reforms to equestrian sports at the Olympic Games, what is the history behind this debate?

The first thing to say is that the London Olympics in 2012 were an enormous success for equestrian sports. The stadium was full for all the disciplines — show jumping, eventing and dressage — which is not usually the case. Also, there were no big accidents, and no doping cases. If you go back to 2004 and 2008, there were some big doping cases.

So 2012 was maybe the best Games ever for equestrian sports. And despite that, a few months later equestrian sports were downgraded by the International Olympic Committee. And if your sport is downgraded too much, your presence at the Games can be threatened. 

That downgrade was mostly a result of broadcasting considerations. Equestrian sports were a great event in London, but television did not show them very much. And when they did, the feedback was not very good: “too long, too complicated,” etc. So that was the situation, and it was a shock for the FEI because the FEI was very proud of the 2012 Olympics. 
And wasn't there also an issue of diversity? In other words, the question of how many countries compete in a sport at the Olympics and the sense that equestrian sports are not very diverse?

Yes, the second point has to do with the IOC’s Agenda 2020, related to diversity and universality. On the one hand, equestrian sports have a lot of positive points with regard to Agenda 2020, because they are the only sports where women and men compete together. Also, athletes can continue competing at older ages and so on. So there are a lot of good points. But one crucial point is the issue of universality, and there is a problem with universality in the three Olympic horse disciplines. 

At the same time, there are currently only 200 spots allocated for equestrian sports at the Olympic Games, for all three disciplines. So the 200 spots have to be divided between the three disciplines: 75 for show jumping, 65 for dressage and 60 for eventing.

Did the FEI try to get more spots in the Games?

Yes. Actually at one point, the FEI tried to integrate a fourth discipline, endurance, into the Olympics. Because right now, endurance is actually the most universal discipline. You have good endurance riders from South Africa, India, China — every part of the world. It is less technical than show jumping, dressage and eventing. It is complicated, but not as much. So at one point they tried to get more spots and add endurance, but with everything that is happening now, there is no point trying again with endurance. Maybe one day, but not right now. 

Only 200 Spots for Equestrian Sports

Only 200 Spots for Equestrian Sports - Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 2)

Steve Guerdat and Sabrina Ibáñez
Credit : IJRC

Did the FEI also feel that adding endurance would help its cause by increasing the participation of regions like the Middle East for example?

Yes absolutely, but also South America, India, China. With regard to diversity, it would give a good image of the sport. But the IOC said no. The FEI tried to get more than 200 spots but the IOC said no, mainly for money reasons, and also due to the time necessary for the classes. For example, the Grand Prix of Dressage — the first class — lasts two days, which is long for television. With 60 combinations, you need two days.

So it is a question of how television-friendly the sports are?

Yes, and dressage is not even the worst in this regard. For example, it is scheduled minute by minute and broadcasters know that Charlotte Dujardin will enter the arena at exactly 10:25 a.m. But because of the length of the competition and the money required — the cost of building infrastructure for the competitions and to host the horses, etc. — these are factors for television and organizers. 

Accreditations are another big issue for the IOC and host nations. Equestrian sports are not like other sports. In contrast with swimming and running, for example, you have a rider, a trainer, a groom, as well as the logistics with the horse. It is really complicated. Maybe it is a good thing that there are only 200 spots. 

So the International Olympic Committee said they wanted more diversity in equestrian sports, and that the FEI would only get 200 spots for athletes. And they told equestrian officials to come up with a solution, to “deal with it” as the FEI's Sabrina Ibáñez said…

Yes, and “deal with it” means that the FEI could drop a discipline and go to two disciplines. Or keep three disciplines and change the number of teams. Or change the number of riders per team. There are only three solutions.

Was the idea of dropping a discipline seriously considered?

The FEI rejected that solution because it is really important for them to have three different disciplines. That is the history: dressage, show jumping and eventing. So they did not even try to propose something like this.

And so what did the FEI decide?

Their proposal was to change from four-rider teams to three-rider teams, with more teams overall. With more teams, you have more flags. Because countries that previously had just one individual spot now may have a team. And this means that they leave another individual spot for another smaller country. 

How would the number of teams change under the FEI’s proposal, which has now been submitted to Olympic organizers? Take show jumping as an example. What is the current format?

For show jumping, up to and including Rio, you had 15 teams of four riders, and 15 individual riders. And the individual riders have to be from different countries, from different geographical regions, although some countries could get two spots. This was the case for Belgium for example, which did not qualify for the team competition.

More Flags

More Flags - Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 2)

French team celebrates in Rio
Credit : Scoopdyga

And how would things change under the new format?

Now, the proposal submitted to the International Olympic Committee is 20 teams of three riders, which means at least 20 different nationalities, as well as 15 individual spots (with possibly 10 or 12 additional nationalities amongst this group). The goal is to reach 33 different flags, up from around 29 flags at the moment. This would increase access and diversity and respond to the IOC's objectives. With three riders instead of four, there would no longer be a drop score either (which allows the team’s worst score to be discarded or ‘dropped’).

What was the riders’ response to the FEI’s proposal?

The riders understand that there are only 200 spots available. But they suggest a different solution to respond to the demand for increased diversity in equestrian sports at the Olympic Games. Their counter-proposal is to go from 15 teams of four riders to 14 teams of four riders, or 13 teams of four riders, or even 12 teams of four riders, plus 19, 23 or even 27 individuals respectively. 

That would allow them to keep their four riders then. The riders also argue that their option would be better for keeping suspense about the outcome, assuring safety and maintaining a high level of sport, as there would not be the risk of sub-par countries participating in the team competition. 

Exactly, and to have more flags; maybe even more than the 33 flags aimed for by the FEI. If you have 12 teams of four riders, that leaves 27 individual spots. And if you organize the qualification system well, you could end up with 24 other countries getting a spot, so as many as 36 flags in total.

What was the FEI’s response to the riders’ counter-proposal to reduce the number of teams and keep four-rider teams? 

The FEI says that team competitions are really important [they also want to now begin the competition with individual riders and finish with the teams, as was the order of events in the past]. And because team competition is so important for the FEI, they do not want to make it smaller and exclude more countries from the possibility of competing in that. 

The FEI wants to have individual spots for small countries, but not too many. And at the same time, if there are only 12 or 13 or 14 teams, that would mean less flags for the team competition. And in the event that the United States did not qualify as a team, the American broadcasters might decide just not  to broadcast the team competition. The same for Canada, the same for Germany, the same for France. They would only show the individual competition when their own country’s rider is there. 

And if you have a team there, there are more possibilities that your country's broadcasters will televise the sport, with all the different riders representing the country? 

Yes, and generally the FEI does not want to lose coverage. Because the ranking of sports — do not forget that equestrian sports was downgraded after 2012, which could eventually threaten a sport’s presence at the Games — are largely based on broadcasting.

In a subsequent report, a couple of the powerful figures in the equestrian sports world today will be highlighted, and the future evolution of these sports will be considered. 

Further reading...