Is it time for equestrian sport to go ‘cool and sexy’?

By Nancy Jaffer
April 10, 2016

Will Olympic eventing gold medalist Michael Jung someday be wearing a form-fitting shirt rather than “museum clothes” for the dressage phase?
Will Olympic eventing gold medalist Michael Jung someday be wearing a form-fitting shirt rather than “museum clothes” for the dressage phase?

A member of the Olympic press commission who spoke at last week’s FEI (international equestrian federation) sports forum noted, “There are tons of new sports trying to knock on the Olympic door. Skateboarding, surfing and rock climbing are almost guaranteed to be on the Olympic program for Tokyo because they are perceived as cool and sexy sports.”

That’s not the kind of revelation geared to making the FEI happy. The shadow over the forum in Switzerland was the longtime concern that equestrian sports–perhaps one discipline, two or all three–could be dropped from their most glittering showcase, the Olympics, as its motto of “faster, higher, stronger” morphs into “cool and sexy,” leaving horses in the dust.

But the press commission representative, Alan Abrahamson of the U.S., advised the FEI to take heart. His thought? “You have that core audience. What you need are more and younger fans. This is not a crisis point. It’s not a moment of desperation for you, it’s a moment rich with opportunity.”

No, I’d say it’s a moment of desperation. With change on the agenda of the forum in a big way, the FEI obviously is determined to do whatever it takes to stay in the Olympics, and not everyone is behind the measures being conceived toward that end.

Example: The U.S. and other major eventing nations came to the forum maintaining that fielding teams of three to eliminate the drop score and make more room for other countries (referred to as “flags”) in the line-up isn’t the way to go in terms of horse welfare.

In the future, it would apply not only to dressage, which had teams of three in 2008 and 2012 and is the least risky of the disciplines, but also to eventing and show jumping (whose Olympic gold medalist, Steve Guerdat, expressed some concern about the reduction in team members for that discipline.)

There will be more pressure on all team members to finish, regardless of whether a horse is tired or has some other issue that could be addressed if there were a drop score available.

Writing in Horse & Hound, former U.S. eventing coach Mark Phillips noted statistics show fewer eventing teams will complete with three members, which is not good for the “picture” the sport presents to the world. Citing a lost shoe or an “innocent overreach” that could eliminate a team horse, he commented “there is a real chance of medal teams being ruled out.”

Michael Etherington-Smith, a two-time Olympic cross-country course designer and chair of the European Equestrian Federation’s eventing committee, maintained during the forum, “I see no evidence to suggest what is in existence is broken. Quite a lot of people aren’t buying into this.”

The arguments were made during the live-streamed conference, but apparently fell on deaf ears, since the more countries that participate in a sport, the better its standing with the International Olympic Committee. Limiting the number of athletes who can take part in the Olympics, which may seem counter to the desire for more flags, is done to control the enormous costs of the fixture, so the flags have to be spread out over fewer people.

No sooner had delegates returned home from the forum than they got a missive from the FEI stating its Bureau had concluded that teams in all equestrian disciplines for the Olympics would be three members, and countries that did not qualify a team could be represented by a maximum of one individual. That also rules out composite teams. Currently, a country that did not qualify a team during a championship, such as the World Equestrian Games, could make one up from individuals who were high enough on the ranking lists.

“I find it disappointing that the Bureau would come out so overtly and basically say, `Thank you for coming to the sports forum, but we’re not going to listen any of your proposals around numbers in a team,’ especially in eventing, where there was a very strong case put forward for drop scores,’’ said the U.S. Equestrian Federation Director of Sport Will Connell.

It’s actually no surprise that the three-member edict came in; the FEI obviously was moving that way, but the question is how to handle it in eventing at the Olympics to make sure a good number of teams complete. The answer seems to be a CIC format, where cross-country comes after show jumping, rather than before it, as in a traditional, longer-format CCI. At the same time, there is fear that Olympic eventing will be dumbed down further, as its cross-country already is less difficult that the WEG, which is a true 4-star.

But wait! The Bureau asked all technical committees to “work in the same direction for the WEG” as they do for the Olympics, adding that it understands “differences across the disciplines are still possible.”

The prospect of a WEG/Olympic synchronization raises hackles, especially because the IOC has nothing to do with the WEG.

“A lot of the eventing community feels very strongly that whatever happens in the Olympics shouldn’t impact on the WEG format. Why can’t we have a WEG that’s a 4-star team competition?” Will asked.

He added many people are concerned how changes will filter down to the lower levels.

“That’s part of the reason people are very keen to retain the current WEG format. What you don’t want is what is currently called a 4-star becoming obsolete,” he commented.

There was talk about “the equestrian community only being a quarter of the people who mattered in this decision, with the other three-quarters being the public, the media and sponsors.”

As Will said, “If you go down the levels, those other three sectors reduce in importance in comparison to the community that is eventing. The shame of it is that many of the significant decisions have been built solely around more flags.’’

As he pointed out, there are many strong points of horse sports that argue for it to remain in the Olympics. What other sports have people in their 50s and 60s (Canada’s show jumper Ian Millar is 69) competing and as possible medal contenders? Not gymnastics or swimming, among many others.

And what other sport has such gender equality, with women competing against men? That should be a huge plus in the struggle to stay in the Games.

Giuseppe della Chiesa, the FEI’s eventing committee chairman, noted the biggest challenge is “to maintain the standards of cross-country; otherwise, all this means nothing.”

U.S. Eventing Coach David O’Connor said it’s time to have a 4-star CIC, that can help prepare riders for championships and 4-star CCIs.
Will commented that having CIC 4-star competitions is “a good suggestion in order to help nations and athletes rise to the challenge of a WEG at 4-star level.”

I asked Will whether with all the changes, Rolex Kentucky could wind up becoming a CIC 4-star.

He replied, “If the WEG gets dumbed down to where the Olympics are quite possibly heading, maybe that’s the case (Rolex becoming a CIC) unless high-level sponsors say, `No, we want to be part of maintaining prize money at the 4-star level.’

“If prize money at the 4-star level continues to increase, I’m sure the 4-stars will continue,” he said.

The eventing committee, meanwhile, has proposed introduction of a lower-level event with cross-country at a 1.05-meter level, to allow a smoother transition between national and international competitions for developing countries in the sport. It also could be used to develop a children’s level category, which has been very successful in show jumping.

Initiatives mentioned to make eventing more television- and spectator friendly (a big part of the Olympic equation) include changing the scoring to positive numbers, rather than having the winner be the competitor with the least penalties, and compressing eventing into three days (it’s four days at the championship level) by concluding dressage in one day. That could happen via shortening the test through eliminating the first salute, deleting the judges’ collective remarks and making the interval between horses shorter.

Dress was also discussed. Frank Kemperman, chairman of the FEI dressage committee and the man who runs the celebrated Aachen, Germany, show, called dressage outfits “a kind of museum clothes…the dress doesn’t look like sport.” He would like to see eventing pave the way on that.

Dressage judge Cara Witham of Canada noted it already has been done in the U.S. at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, where it has been so hot when it was held in Kentucky during the summer that there sometimes has been a mandatory “no jackets” rule and competitors rode in team logo polo shirts.

“They looked fantastic for dressage and eventing,” said Cara, while noting that ironically “the young people said they preferred to wear tailcoats and jacket.”

A suggestion to change the name of eventing didn’t go anywhere. Yet. In discussions of name changes, Frank said, “I missed the word `horse,’ noting “equestrian already is a difficult word for a lot of people,” comparing it to “Chinese.”

FEI Vice President John Madden said, “We get quite myopic. We think the rest of the world understands us. They don’t.”

Andrew Finding of the European Equestrian Federation probably had the best idea: “Why don’t we have 15 to 20-year-olds come up with a name?”

Draft rules will be sent in July to national federations, who must give their feedback to the FEI by Sept. 9. The FEI will vote on the proposed rules at its general assembly in Tokyo Nov. 22.

The WEG and the continental championships will survive, of course. But what happens if despite all the efforts to the contrary, equestrian is no longer part of the Olympics somewhere down the road?

“That’s the $99 million question,” said Will.

“If jumping came out of the Olympics, it’s going to continue,” he commented. Then there’s a but.

“Would dressage be where it is now? Would eventing continue in its current guise? You don’t know whether certain owners would still want to be involved, whether the investment would be the same. Certainly, programs focused on winning medals would be drastically reduced. I don’t think any of us want to be out of the Olympic Games, but for sure, there are some people saying at some point, if eventing is changed too much, should eventing say, `We’re not going to take that change?’

He cautioned, “I’m not saying that. I don’t think we’re there in any way, shape or form.”

At the same time, “There is no doubt we’ve got to make our sport more presentable and understandable. We need to work to get more flags into the sport. Whether that needs to be done instantaneously or over a period of time should have been based on a more analytical approach.”

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