New FEI Athlete Representative Cian O'Connor on the future of show jumping

Kent Farrington and Cian O'Connor at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida in 2013
Credit : Scoopdyga

Wednesday 07 November - 14h54 | Ian Clayton and Sébastien Roullier

New FEI Athlete Representative Cian O'Connor on the future of show jumping

Today, part 2 of GRANDPRIX-replay's interview with Cian O'Connor, CSI 5* rider and new Athlete Representative for show jumping at the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI). O'Connor looks ahead at the future of the sport and the work he intends to do over the next four years.  

"It's not only about the top people."

It's not only about the top people. - New FEI Athlete Representative Cian O'Connor on the future of show jumping

Riding Blue Loyd 12 at the 2012 London Olympics
Credit : Scoopdyga

Part 1 of the interview is here. 

GP: Regarding the athlete representative position at the FEI, how did you first get interested in this role? 
A couple of people asked me about it; it was advertised for riders to put themselves forward…. And I think I've been in the sport long enough and travel a lot, so I can give the European side and American side – also the Arab league. So yeah, I just put my name in for it and was fortunate enough to win. 
GP: 277 show jumping athletes were eligible to vote in this election, 48 votes were cast and you obtained 42%. What are your thoughts on that low turnout?
The voting system is very complex. First of all, you have to have ridden at a championship before, and you have to register to vote and they write back to you and you e-mail and so on…. It needs to be easier. You want people to vote, so it should be just press a button, or send a text message or something. They need to look at the voting system. But also riders in general are lazy, we’re not known for our office work. We all bitch and complain about things, but we won’t actually sit down and do anything constructive or write a letter or an e-mail. So riders have themselves to blame; a lot of the time we’re our own worst enemies. 
GP: What was your reaction to your election – was it a surprise?  The International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) had presented another candidate…
Yeah, I had discussions with the IJRC at the time… Eleonora [Ottaviani, director of the IJRC] and Steve Guerdat and Kevin Staut and all the guys do great work. I suppose I have strong opinions, but I didn’t think it was right for them to put someone forward. Because as the representative of riders, they should just say, ‘Here are the candidates’, and that’s a discussion I had with Eleonora: ‘Why are you putting someone forward? You shouldn’t actually align yourself with anybody. If you’re representing the riders, it should be all the riders, and you should put everyone forward’ – that was my view. And we had a difference about that but, no problem, we can agree to differ…. In general I was of the opinion that the Riders Club should be more representative of all the riders, and my goal is to represent rider 965 the same as you represent the No.3 rider in the world. And partly because the riders further down the list aren’t focused on [the politics], I think they get a little bit left out. And equally because the top voices, people like Steve and Kevin, give a lot of their time – they can write a letter, they can give an interview. In any case, they speak up, and so it’s not fair to say, ‘You’re only representing them’ if they’re the only ones doing any work… So I can see both sides of it, but I would like to see the Riders Club more inclusive regarding the broader group of riders. For people who have an international rider’s license, the guy who does the 2* is also important in terms of his opinion. So that’s my goal; he’s an athlete as well and is also contributing to the economy in terms of the industry and horse sport, and producing horses. So it’s not only about the top people. 
GP: Previous representatives in this role include Franke Sloothaak, Markus Fuchs, Emile Hendrix, Rodrigo Pessoa, Otto Becker, Max Kühner… What is your view of the work they did?
Everything has come a long way. I mean, the sport is evolving every 3–5 years, things are changing and you know, it is a lot of work. I’ve only been to one meeting now with the jumping committee in Barcelona, and those guys work around the clock. And we as riders sometimes don’t realize it. We’re very quick to complain but we don’t realize people are in a room, going through rules and regulations, organizing things for the betterment of the sport. So there’s a lot of good being done behind the scenes, and when you’re in the tent looking out, your perspective is very different from outside looking in, and you become a little more appreciate of what everyone does. You can always have bright ideas when you’re sitting outside, but when you come in you see there are many restraints and restrictions. 

GP: Obviously you have a connection with Rodrigo Pessoa… Did you talk to him about running for this position? 
Not so much, actually. Rodrigo’s the most laid-back person you could meet – maybe we had one or two short discussions on it, and he said, ‘It’s going to be a lot of work, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I’m happy to do it and try it, and if I can do a good job for the riders, I’m happy to do it.’ Continued below.

"There are good riders who didn't help their country this year."

There are good riders who didn't help their country this year. - New FEI Athlete Representative Cian O'Connor on the future of show jumping

Cian O'Connor with Good Luck in Aachen in 2016
Credit : Scoopdyga

GP: What will be your first priority as an athlete representative – the first thing you want to achieve? 
Well, as I said, my first priority will be to try and represent the broad base of riders, so when I’m sitting there in the jumping committee, I’m not only representing Cian O’Connor or the [elite] athletes’ view. You have to look at the whole sport as well; what is better for the sport. Where is the sport going to be in 3, 5, 10, 15 years? And I suppose that’s what any legacy should leave – it has to be selfless and not selfish, and should be about the greater good. 
GP: This summer, you said that you felt that ‘there are too many cliques’ in your sport. What do you mean by that and what do you plan to do about it?
Yeah, I think that competition is healthy, and there should not be a mentality of ‘this circuit is better than that circuit or the other circuit.’ I’ve also made my voice known that the Nations Cup has diminished somewhat in its appeal – in the teams that have been fielded and the kind of prize money on offer in the Nations Cup and the Grand Prix at the Nations Cup shows. And in my opinion, they’re wonderful shows because they’re traditional shows in places that attract a good crowd. You can often bring three horses, which allows a horse to develop. There’s already a public at those shows. But if that’s the premier, flagship event of the FEI, and that’s their product, they should do everything they can to protect it. It doesn’t mean that if you have a new series, they should complain about you. And if you’re putting up good money, it’s not your fault – you’re actually raising the bar. So the other circuits and series have rightly put the pressure on the FEI to match them, and I come from the ethos that what Jan Tops [founder of the Longines Global Champions Tour] has done is fantastic, and it’s positive, and instead of complaining about it, we should embrace it. And you should say, ‘okay, you have that circuit, the Nations Cup and World Cup, but it should be all one big show jumping family and community.’ And there should be an opportunity for competition, and to really look at oneself in the mirror and say, how can we improve our product instead of complaining about someone else’s.  
GP: You recently said that “You have to always keep the bigger picture in mind.” What will be your ‘big picture’ as an athlete representative? 
The athlete representative is, I suppose, fair play to all, promoting good horse welfare, management and clean sport, and to think of the direction the sport should go in over the next number of years. For me, I’m a die-hard Nations Cup supporter, I’m a die-hard championships supporter, but it upsets me that many of the good guys don’t want to go to the championships. They don’t make it their priority. And that’s not the fault of Jan Tops, that’s not the fault of the Global Tour, it’s the other way around. Turn the cup on its head and say, why? If you offer prize money of 500,000 extra at the Nations Cup shows, would people come? They would for sure come, because it’s about money. The riders have to pay their way… and owners too, for sure. And if the World Champion got a million dollars or euros or whatever for winning, would everyone aim for that? They would. So the championships need to be the pinnacle, and I also think that riders get too caught up in it. Sometimes riders talk about the prize money, and the closest they get to the prize money is on the schedule. They have no real goal or possibility to get there, and sometimes Nations Cups can be easier depending on your horse. So this year, I have Good Luck and I say to myself, ‘Okay I will try do Globals,’ or next year I don’t have Good Luck and maybe I can win more money in the Nations Cups. All series should complement each other, and shouldn’t be in competition. And I don’t like to hear, ‘this is better, or that’s better or that’s worse’. There’s room for everybody, and one year you can be in the Global and it suits your horses, next year it might not suit your horses because they’re a bit green or a bit slower – maybe Nations Cups suit them. But to be honest, there are 52 weeks in a year, the country needs you maximum three Nations Cups and one championship if you’re a top rider. So four weekends out of 52, is that too much to ask? For me, I don’t think so. In summary, there’s room for everybody and instead of being critical of others, they should look to make their own brand better. And there are good riders for every country – not so much Ireland – who didn’t help their country this year, who didn’t go to Nations Cups, didn’t go to championships…
GP: Great Britain, for example?
For example, yeah, and it’s not the first time – we’ve had it in Ireland in previous times. And while on the one hand, you have sympathy for them and there’s more money in the other shows, I think the FEI will in the future look to make it more attractive for those people to come. But I think people need to look at themselves and say, is three weeks too much to help out? We all have to remember where we came from. Continued below.

Not sure about future of WEG

Not sure about future of WEG - New FEI Athlete Representative Cian O'Connor on the future of show jumping

O'Connor with Irish teammates at the Nations Cup of La Baule, France in 2011
Credit : Scoopdyga

GP: You will be the voice of athletes on the FEI Jumping Committee and part of the Athletes' Commission… The commission’s chair also sits on the FEI Executive Board. Does that possibility interest you?
I suppose we’ll see – one step at a time. There’s enough work to go on with there, and we’ll see how it goes. And even here at this show, many of the riders come up and they talk about various things… different ideas that people have, so I suppose I’m quite accessible. I think I’m a reasonably good communicator, people can contact me easily. So I think because of that I can hopefully help and improve things during my term. 
GP: Given that voting power is held by national federations within the FEI, how do you reconcile their sometimes different views from those of riders? Could riders have done anything differently with regard to the Olympic competition format debate, for example [reducing the number of riders per team to try and include more countries and respond to the International Olympic Committee's diversity demands]? 
That is really a bugbear of my life, a serious issue with the federations going to the various FEI meetings and not discussing with the chefs d’equipe or the high performance committee of their country, or the riders. And I think that’s something that needs to be addressed because if you have, as we did in the past, a secretary general of a federation heading off to the general assembly and he’s giving his opinion and this person is a bureaucrat and office person and knows nothing about the sport, it doesn’t make any sense. And I think it should be a directive from the FEI to national federations that they consult not just the riders, but all the stakeholders. Most countries have a high-performance committee, which means they pay someone like Otto Becker or Pete Weinberg or Rodrigo Pessoa or Di Lampard and so on, and for the administration to go just with their own views, I think that’s wrong. I know it doesn’t happen in every country; for example Rob Ehrens in the Netherlands says he is consulted there, but how can it be that everyone doesn’t discuss things in this respect? And again, maybe that’s something the FEI can do in a directive to the national federations. Otherwise, if it’s just people who are completely out of touch with the sport, it makes no sense. If I’m running my business, you have to have people making decisions who know something about it. It’s actually laughable that you would have people in the federation going against what people on the ground want – not just riders, who aren’t always right, but the chefs d’equipe, or the advisors or selectors, or whatever structure the country has. The different voices should be heard. We’ve had cases in Ireland where the heads of the federation had one view and the chef d’equipe and the advisors another, and in my opinion the guys who are doing it every week know and the people in the office don’t. So that’s really something that has upset me in the past…. That’s part of the clique thing as well and we need to knock that on the head. 
GP: On a side note, what is your view of the future of the World Equestrian Games? Do you think there will be one in 2022? 
I think if you look at traditional shows like Aachen, for example, there are some venues that could do it. But even the logistics of it; would it not be better for each sport to organize things, or put two disciplines together like jumping and dressage, and normally I think you get the right spectators and everything else with that. It’s complex to organize; it has proved very, very expensive and places have lost money because of it, so it hasn’t been a roaring success over the last 12 years. And I think it’s way beyond my pay grade – I don’t know who decides that… Obviously it would be nice for it to continue in a romantic sense, but is it practical? I’m not sure. 
Along those lines, how will you manage your time with this new position, and how often do you expect to be in Switzerland?
We have a conference call next week for a couple of hours, I will read a lot of documents, be in touch with riders, work closely with the IJRC… You can work from afar, you don’t need to go there. But basically [my goal is to] be good at communicating and put forward the views, and if I get something I’m not sure about I will call people. I’ll talk to the riders, and not just the top ones but some of the other ones and ask, ‘How does this affect you guys? You’re someone trying to get your eight-year-olds to a 2* and maybe you have a different view than Kevin Staut.’ And that’s something that’s really important for me, that we include everyone’s opinion and not just look after the chosen few. 
GP: Will you be at the General Assembly in Bahrain later this month?
No I’m not going as I already had plans to coach in Stuttgart, and that was already in place prior to taking over the job, but in the future I will be. 
GP: After you stop riding, could you imagine one day becoming President of the FEI?
No way (laughs). 
GP: You know, the president is paid now…
Not enough… (laughs) 

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