Update: Big changes happening for equestrian Olympics 2020

By Nancy Jaffer
November 22, 2016

Those who dream about riding in the Olympics will need to temper their plans (real or fantasy) following the International Equestrian Federation’s (FEI) decision yesterday to cut teams from four to three in each of the Olympic disciplines  and eliminate drop scores.

Olympic medal podiums will be less-crowded under the new format for three-member teams approved by the FEI. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

And you thought competition to get on a team was already tough enough?

Alternates, however,  are envisioned as playing a bigger role, taking the place of a teammate who can’t continue after the competition has begun, but can you imagine, for instance, a jumper coming into the mix in the second round? The International Jumper Riders Club didn’t like it, saying it would be difficult for a horse to enter the competition cold without having become accustomed to the arena and fences in a first round that serves to acclimatize entries.

Cutting  the number of competitors per country was only one of many measures taken during the FEI’s  General Assembly in Tokyo Nov. 22.  I watched the livestream from 7 p.m.-2:30 a.m. (Tokyo is 14 hours ahead of the Eastern U.S.) so I’ll fill you in on the highlights, including several presentations.

These changes and numerous others are all part of an effort to keep equestrian sports in the Olympics, with the idea of having more countries represented to show universality of participation in horse sports.  Space in the Games is always at a premium, as new sports jostle to become a part of them, often at the expense of the older sports on the roster.

Only 11 of 107 nations represented voted against format changes, but their number included the equestrian powerhouses of Germany, Netherlands, France, Switzerland and New Zealand. Neither Canada nor the U.S. were among the dissenters.

Canadian Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalist Eric Lamaze said that at a meeting of his country’s team in Rio last summer, members of the squad were all against the change from four to three.

“Given the outcome of our meeting, it comes as a complete shock that Canada voted in favor of the proposed change to three-man teams.  What the Canadian federation went forward with was not the wish of the Canadian show jumping riders, as per our meeting in Rio,” commented Eric.

“I accept the fact that our vote would not have changed the outcome, but we made a decision and believe that our voices should have been heard,” he continued.

“The current format works, and I want to make it clear that we believe the new format is not good for our sport on many different levels,” stated Eric.

However, it appears the FEI is at least on the right track with the IOC by increasing “the flags” because a promotional video from the Japanese Olympic  Committee that was screened at the assembly kept emphasizing “diversity” in connection with the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Happily, it was decided not to switch the format of eventing to CIC style with the cross-country last, which had been discussed and would have changed the sport.

But other big changes for the Olympics include having  the Grand Prix Special (run to music!) determine the team medals in dressage, with the Grand Prix being used to winnow the number of teams that can go in the Special. In show jumping, the individual competition will be first. The eventing dressage and show jumping will be at 4-star level, but cross-country will be at the 3-star technical level, and eventing dressage can take only one day, not two, as usual.

The presentation about the 2020 Games revealed there are two Olympic venues in Tokyo. The inland Heritage Zone “evokes the spirit of the ’64 Games” and that is where most of the equestrian competition will be, just as it was 52 years ago, the last time the city hosted the Games. The Sea Forest cross-country (designed by Derek DiGrazia, who also designs the route for the Rolex Kentucky 4-star) will be at the waterfront Tokyo Bay Zone on reclaimed land.

The good news for those who dream of achieving team glory is that the squads for the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C., will have four members, not three.While the IOC runs the Olympics, the FEI runs the WEG , which offers more freedom.

World Equestrian Game medal ceremonies still will have places for teams of four, as they did during the 2014 WEG in Normandy. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Mark Bellissimo, the managing partner behind the Tryon International Equestrian Center, was in Tokyo to offer information on the WEG and his facility.  He revealed that after Bromont, Quebec, withdrew as host of the 2018 WEG, he called his right-hand man, Michael Stone, and within five minutes it was decided Tryon—with its eight all-weather rings and six grass arenas–could do the Games.

The backing of the U.S. Equestrian Federation helped in submission of a bid, which was quickly accepted by the FEI.

After the 2014 Normandy, France, WEG, it was obvious changes needed to be made in the way the WEG was handled. Too often, the WEG has been a financial disaster. It was determined tighter parameters were needed for future World Games; that  the time for the Games needed to be reduced to nine or 10 days,  athlete numbers had to be cut and the FEI should reduce its host fee and sponsorship commissions.

Tryon has a huge advantage over Normandy and its multiple venues in that the 2018 WEG will be on one site. Although $125 million has been spent on TIEC, Mark said another $100 million will be going into the facility.

Plans for more hotels (among them a 200-room hotel is scheduled to open on site next year), amenities and recreational opportunities were outlined. Prospective spectators will be glad to hear that TIEC will have control over hotel rates in the region and nothing can be more than 10 percent over the usual cost of rooms, unlike the 2010 WEG in Kentucky, where price gouging was a big issue.

“We aspire to a venue of the stature of Aachen (Germany, home of the successful 2006 WEG),” Mark told his audience of 300. Hmmm, but did he go a bit far when he suggested in closing that after the 2018 WEG, people might refer to Aachen as “the Tryon of Germany?”

In other business, Lord Stevens gave a report in the integrity of equestrian sports (there were no equestrian drug/medication violations at the Rio Games) and noted that in other sports, including soccer, cycling and cricket, there was “an extraordinary series of scandals” recently.

He pointed out that scandal affects the reputation of a sport while also hurting its profitability, explaining that “trust is key” for sponsors. Along those lines, the FEI wants higher fines for those found to have violated rules involving banned substances and controlled medications.

When the 2016 World Endurance Championships in the United Arab Emirates “became a cause of concern,” the FEI “demonstrated strength” by relocating them to Slovakia, Lord Stevens noted.

Other items I picked up:

The Youth Olympic Games will be in Buenos Aires Oct. 1-7 2018, which could be an interesting experience for young people aspiring to the senior Olympics.

A new invitation system for jumping competitions at 2-star level and above will open more opportunities for athletes who too often found themselves closed out of big competitions . The new system will give them a chance to climb up the rankings ladder, which is often a key for team selection and also gives preference in entering shows with limits on the number of competitors.

Roly Owers, CEO of World Horse Welfare (worldhorsewelfare.org) talked about the “invisible” working horses around the world and their plight. Take a look at the website. The FEI Code of Conduct was drafted with World Horse Welfare, which promotes the need for responsible breeding and proper care of horses after their careers, among many other issues.

In closing, FEI President Ingmar de Vos noted, “This was a very important General Assembly. We took crucial decisions for the future of our sport and I understand that not everybody was happy, but we followed a very democratic process and in the end there was a clear majority. There are no winners or losers in this debate. These new formats give us a huge responsibility and failure is not an option, so we need to work together with all our stakeholders to prepare for Tokyo 2020.”


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