Will eventing changes be for the best?

By Nancy Jaffer
March 27, 2016

Olympic victory gallops, like this one by the German team at the 2012 London Games, will have two less participants if a controversial effort is passed to cut the number of riders on a squad. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)
Olympic victory gallops, like this one by the German team at the 2012 London Games, will have two less participants if a controversial effort is passed to cut the number of riders on a squad.
(Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

There is no doubt that major change is coming yet again to the sport of eventing, motivated in great part by the intense desire to have it remain in the Olympics.

If your only interest in the discipline is at the lower levels, don’t stop reading. Changes at the top have a way of trickling down to somehow affect everyone who participates, even if they’re only at training level, or  below.

Changes proposed by the FEI (international equestrian federation) are prompted by the International Olympic Committee’s Agenda 2020 (that’s the year the Olympics will be held in Tokyo). The agenda is subtitled, “The strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic movement.”

As IOC President Thomas Bach put it, “It is a picture of progress. It is a picture that ensures the uniqueness of the Olympic Games. It is a picture that promotes the Olympic values. And it is a picture that strengthens sport in society.” And he might well have added that to remain in that picture, sports must do whatever is deemed necessary.

Any format adopted also would be used for the World Equestrian Games. The measures, which include some not directly involving the Olympics, will be discussed and no doubt debated during the FEI’s sports forum in Switzerland next month and voted on at its general assembly this autumn.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Eventing Association both have weighed in with concerns about a number of the suggestions, which also are geared to making eventing more TV-friendly.

The U.S. Eventing Association didn’t mince words in its conclusion about a good bit of the remodeling:

“Should the FEI move forward with all of the proposals as outlined and deviate from the recommendations as outlined by the USEF, the USEA and other major National Governing Bodies of the sport, we will need to reconsider whether risking the integrity of the sport of Eventing justifies remaining a part of the Olympic Games.”

And that’s the crux of it. Is changing the eventing game to such an extent that some believe it becomes nearly a different sport worth the prestige of being in the Olympics?

Will Connell, the USEF’s director of sport, noted about that question, “Where you draw the line between a sport giving up its values in order to stay in the Olympics is a very difficult one.”

He added, “We’re not at the point where we’re saying what is proposed is going to destroy the integrity of the sport to the point where we shouldn’t do it, we should accept going out of the Games. it would be wrong for us to ever say that without a very detailed consultation with athletes and all our internal stakeholders,” he pointed out.

Jim Wolf, who served as director of sport programs for the USEF and director of eventing with the U.S. Equestrian Team before that, thinks it’s crucial for eventing to stay in the Olympic movement.

Now head of Wolf Sports Group LLC, a sports marketing, event management and logistics firm, he cited the “crediblity and cachet” bestowed by the Olympics and the ability to capture part of its worldwide audience. It is also, he said, “a selling point for the sport,” which needs sponsorship to thrive.

“You’ve got to make sports TV-friendly,” he commented, noting other sports, from athletics to cricket, have changed their formats to achieve that end.

At one time, the Olympic Games were the pinnacle, the only chance some sports–such as equestrian–had to be on a global stage. But that’s no longer the case. Once-obscure sports now appear regularly on TV and with many people dropping cable in favor of viewing the action on their computers, tablets or cellphones, live-streaming of their favorite competitions is a frequent occurrence. The World Equestrian Games and the proliferation of major venues that attract many thousands of spectators also provide prominent pathways for horse sports.

All it takes is one fall on cross-country for a team without a drop score to have its Olympic medal hopes dashed. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)
All it takes is one fall on cross-country for a team without a drop score to have its Olympic medal hopes dashed.
(Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

This is not the first time that there has been concern about the Olympics dropping equestrian sports (dressage and jumping also are due for changes, but nothing as drastic as eventing). Eventing has a big target on it because, among other reasons, it’s expensive to stage and the scoring isn’t easy to understand.

In 2002, the recommendation by the IOC’s program commission that eventing should be dropped from the Games after the 2004 Olympics shook the discipline. But the FEI got busy to counter the commission’s recommendation, which was geared to limiting the size and cost of the games by eliminating some sports.

So the FEI did what it had to do. Remember the classic format, and its acreage-eating roads and tracks and steeplechase segments that tested speed and endurance? They were an integral part of the sport for nearly a century, but those segments have disappeared (except at a few low-level outings) and last were seen at the Rolex Kentucky 4-star in 2005, the year after the Olympics went to the short format to save time, money, and eventing’s place in the Games.

That also paved the way for warmbloods to dominate the discipline, since the endurance of the thoroughbred was no longer essential.

Many changes to the sport, once a military exercise, have been extremely beneficial. When Lana duPont Wright got the USEF’s Lifetime Achievement Award in January, we were reminded that women were excluded from Olympic eventing rosters until 1964, the year she broke that barrier. And speaking of breaking things, her horse fell twice (one fall did not mean elimination in those days) and broke his jaw on cross-country during an era before horse welfare was not a prime consideration, as it is today. That’s another good change.

But the USEF and USEA do not support a change that would limit Olympic teams to three riders, (rather than the five who competed in 2012, 2008 and 2004) with one alternate horse or horse and rider combination. That would mean no drop score. The U.S. fielded three-member teams from 1928 through 1956, but four-member teams with one drop score were the rule from 1960 through 2000. The cross-country test by its nature often involves eliminations, so availability of a drop score assures teams of having a shot at a medal, or at least an honorable completion.

The USEF stated in its reason for not supporting this change.“This would make the sport about completion and not about competition.

“The statistics show very clearly that if there are three in the team for cross-country with no drop score, either a significant number of teams will not complete or the cross-country will be dumbed down to an extent that the very essence of eventing is destroyed.”

An answer that could make teams of three work better, Will noted, would be utilizing a CIC format, with dressage followed by show jumping rather than cross-country, which would be run last.

It eliminates the pressure involved on what USEA termed, “an unprepared or physically compromised horse or rider” when show jumping is the day after cross-country. With the advantage of a drop score, they could be held out, as is often the case, but having cross-country last could help when there are only three on a team.

An alternative of awarding points to horses that do not complete and/or allowing them to show jump “only makes the scoring more complicated,” according to the USEF.

Will believes discussions have gotten stuck on teams of three and “haven’t embraced all of what agenda 2020 stands for. We haven’t really discussed in depth how we better present the sport,” which includes reducing its cost.

Teans of three offer the option for more countries to compete, which meets the eternal goal of increasing a sport’s universality, always a major IOC consideration. But it also raises the question about whether the bar will be lowered to accommodate that ambition.

Other changes proposed include changing the name of the sport. How about Equestrian Triathlon? Equi-triathlon? Equestrio? Triquestrian?

The USEF wondered is “adopting a new name going to change anything or just further divide the community and confuse the public?” USEA also pointed out it will be costly for the governing bodies, sports organizations and those presenting events to change letterheads, signs, trademarks and the like.

Eventing is at a crossroads, no doubt about it. All we can hope is that those who understand its essence are able to prevail, so remaking the sport does not mean ruining it.

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