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Horse sports at the Olympics: Let’s take nothing for granted

Steve Guerdat of Switzerland riding Nino Des Buissonnets celebrates winning the Gold medal in the Individual Jumping Equestrian on Day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Steve Guerdat of Switzerland riding Nino Des Buissonnets celebrates winning the Gold medal in the Individual Jumping at the London 2012 Olympic Games. © London 2012

It seems that the standard solution to most problems in equestrian sport involves forming another committee.

Of course, in this modern era, we generally no longer call them committees. They tend to be task forces, strategic planning groups, councils, tribunals, working groups, and the like. The FEI is no stranger to this process in its bid to be caring, sharing and inclusive.

Generally, news of the formation of the latest committee to deal with the issue du jour is pretty underwhelming. However, I am going to go into bat for the FEI Bureau and suggest that its proposal to set up a council to protect the interests of equestrian disciplines in the Olympic movement is a smart and forward-thinking move.

Why? Because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is looking this year at some pretty radical reforms and the FEI and its member-nations would be be wise to ensure the values of equestrian sport are promoted.

FEI president Princess Haya copped some flak in 2008 for comments on this very subject.

She warned that equestrian sport’s hold on its Olympic status faced scrutiny. She pointed to the low popularity of dressage, as well as complaints about judging and the makeup of judging panels and committees.

“Anyone who thinks equestrian sports are secure for London is mistaken,” she said, referring to the 2012 Olympics.

“The IOC has very reasonable and legitimate concerns about eventing safety and the way the dressage committee is working. It could also be the end of show jumping as an Olympic sport, too, as they are unlikely to leave it on its own.”

It is fair to say that these were darker times. It was not long after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which horse events were held in Hong Kong. Horse doping at the Games was a major embarrassment for equestrian sport, which managed the dubious distinction of more positive dope tests on horses than on human athletes at the entire games.

Greenwich Park, where equestrian events were held for London 2012. Having horse sports in the cite center is a rare occurrence at the Olympics.

Greenwich Park, where equestrian events were held for London 2012. Having horse sports in the cite center is a rare occurrence at the Olympics.

Since then, the picture has been much rosier. The London Games unfolded without any drug controversies and proved to be a fantastic spectacle in London’s historic Greenwich Park. It was a great success.

That is a huge positive, and equestrian sports – or at least dressage, showjumping and eventing – sit within the 25 core Olympic sports.

However, it has to be acknowledged that equestrian sport is not in the same league as athletics or swimming, which are central to any Games.

With that in mind, the FEI is wise, in my view, to be setting up a council to protect the Olympic status of its three disciplines.

FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos said of the council proposal: “The bureau strongly believes the FEI should undertake all the necessary and possible actions to protect the place of equestrian sport in the Olympic programme.”

De Vos told national federations that the council would provide a framework to address Olympic and IOC matters directly with IOC members with a link with equestrian sport.

Equestrian sport has a long and proud involvement in the summer Olympics. It first appeared in 1900 and became mixed in 1952. It is a discipline in which men and women compete on equal footing. Indeed, it has a high ratio of female participation.

It also provides an Olympic discipline where age is no particular barrier to competition, which cannot be said of the great majority of Olympic sports.

The timing of the council proposal, which member-nations will vote on at a special meeting late in April, comes at a time when the IOC is investigating much-needed change.

It is all part of a programme called Olympic Agenda 2020, launched by President Thomas Bach after his election last September.

There are growing concerns within the Olympic movement about the spiraling costs of staging the Games and this has resulted in considerably fewer cities, with the support of their respective countries, seeking to host the Games.

olympic_iconRussian president Vladimir Putin was happy to sign the cheque for the just-completed Sochi Winter Olympics, but not many nations would have the stomach for a $US50 billion bill. Sochi was the most expensive Games in history.

The Olympic Agenda 2020 programme was considered by the IOC at its 126th session, in Sochi, earlier this month.

Working groups are now to look at the options in a process leading through to a special IOC extraordinary session in Monte Carlo this December. (The FEI General Assembly in Dubai has been delayed by more than a month to fall after this meeting).

The ideas being batted around make interesting reading.

The IOC is looking at ways to make the bidding process cheaper; perhaps allowing more than one city or country to host the Games, although some IOC members are known to be uncertain about this proposal, for fear it would dilute the impact and affect the feel of the Games.

There are too many ideas to traverse here, but there are some where one is left wondering what impact they might have on equestrian sports, should they gain approval.

Could polo make an Olympic reappearance?

Could polo make an Olympic reappearance?

For example, one proposes continental games as part of the qualification system. Could such a proposal completely change the current path for equestrian competitors to the Games?

Another suggests basing the Olympic programme on disciplines and events rather than sports. Could this open the door for the return of polo, which has featured on five summer Olympic programmes in the modern era, or the first appearance of endurance? Conversely, could pressure go on eventing, which has the fewest participating nations and has the need for a costly cross country course?

There is also talk of rotating athletes and officials through the Olympic village, enabling each host city to build a smaller village. This would presumably mean a longer running time for each Games.

The working groups will also be looking at involving more athletes, sports, disciplines, and events in the Games – all of which begs the question, which ones?

Other ideas include consulting each host city on the composition of the Olympic programme and giving them the possibility of choosing one sport or discipline. One has to wonder how this might play out for the equestrian disciplines, with the international movement of horses to some parts of the world a major headache.

One wonders, for example, whether China might have proposed dropping equestrian sports for the Beijing Games had it been given some say over the sporting composition, given that it had to stage the events in Hong Kong.

It is clear that a council promoting the interests of equestrian sports at an Olympic level is a sound idea.

We remain in the dark over whether Princess Haya can be persuaded to stay on in the president’s role for a further term. Should she leave the role in November, she will relinquish her seat on the IOC, where she has been an advocate for equestrian sport since 2007.

These are elected positions and the next president of the FEI is in no way guaranteed a seat. All the more important, therefore, to get the ear of any IOC members who will listen and keep equestrian interests at the front of their minds.

There is no harm in a little lobbying – even if it is left in the hands of a committee.

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  1. KN says:

    Just a note- equestrian sports were watched more than swimming, soccer, etc… at either the 2008 or 2012 olympics- can’t remember which one

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