The world is littered with the rotting carcasses of breakaway sporting groups.
Some, in high profile sports, have had millions of dollars in backing, yet still failed to prosper. Think Australian media mogul Kerry Packer’s rebel cricket league of the late 1970s and the Australian Super League war of the 1990s.
In the ranks of professional sport, breakaway groups have been formed for a variety of reasons, primary among them being player dissatisfaction over money or conditions, and television rights.
They struggle for much the same reasons that any business venture struggles. These alternative sporting leagues are invariably expensive to set up and face the task of luring fans (and players) from the established version of the sport. If they don’t get the fans at the grounds or in front of television sets, they don’t get the revenue.
So, with this in mind, is there any realistic prospect of success for a breakaway group in the world of endurance?
Last week, the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) signaled the possibility of a breakaway international endurance body if the FEI failed to rein in controversial practices in the sport in the Middle East.
The AERC has given the FEI until January 1 to make “measurable progress” in addressing its concerns.
Fatalities, drug violations and fractures have been an increasing concern among riders worldwide, with infractions centering on Bahrain, Qatar and Dubai within FEI’s Region VII, which encompasses much of the Middle East.
The decision of the AERC’s board means there have now been rumblings on both sides of the Atlantic about the possibility of a breakaway group.
The AERC board noted it had received more than 600 comments from members on the situation, which gives some insight into the depth of feeling on the matter.
The board’s resolution signaled its intention to consider exploring with “like-minded endurance groups in other countries” the formation of a new international organization to run international endurance riding events if the FEI did not show this “measurable progress”.
History would suggest the odds of success are against it, but there are some interesting factors at play which, in my view, means the prospect of success should not be dismissed lightly.
Firstly, there is unquestionably a great deal of dissatisfaction at grassroots level over the situation in the Middle East. The doping infractions and horse welfare issues raised paint a very ugly picture indeed.
Video evidence suggests many, if not all, of these desert riders have their very own “roadside assist” programme, judging by the fleet of gas guzzlers seen driving alongside the competitors.
This is not an issue about professionalism, or pay deals, or television rights – issues well removed from grassroots participants in any sport. This is about horse welfare and concerns about the international image of the sport.
Some nations undoubtedly consider that the so-called classic form of endurance is fundamentally different from what goes on in the Middle East.
The Middle Eastern desert contests are much more akin to conventional racing, with trainers and stable jockeys the norm. For many competing in the classic form, it is about completion and not winning.
The FEI appears convinced it can rein in the Middle East excesses through rule changes and enforcement. There is little doubt that some nations, especially so those in Europe, seriously doubt this is achievable.
For the FEI, it may ultimately come down to which form it really wants to support. With welfare concerns from the Middle East tearing at the fabric of the sport, one would hope its foot is clearly in the camp of the classic form.
Another factor likely to have some influence is the fact that the vast majority of endurance competitors are focused on their domestic events. The prospect of heading overseas to compete is not even on their radar.
Naturally, the mileage completed by riders and their horses would not be recognised by the FEI but, provided it is properly logged and verified under some reliable set of rules administered by a governing body, does it make the horse worth any less to a prospective buyer?
The biggest potential fallout would obviously affect riders with aspirations to compete on the global stage, but the AERC makes it clear that one of the purposes of any proposed breakaway body would be to organise international competitions.
Leading American endurance rider John Crandell, who has represented the United States internationally, has been vocal on the issues within endurance. He acknowledges that the international endurance community is divided, as are individuals, on the depth of change they support.
“Each person’s degree of commitment to the current system, financial and otherwise, affects their position.”
He says there are those who have invested heavily in horses in the decade-long development pipeline regimented by the FEI qualification criteria. They are caught, he says, in an investment path that may have started many years ago, and fear it may be wasted if there is too much change too soon.
“Older individuals are also much less likely to support a transition that is likely to span well beyond their personal involvement in the sport,” he suggests.
He continues: “The vast majority participating in international endurance racing are genuinely concerned about the issues … but may also be prejudiced against the full measure that is actually required to soundly remedy the issues.”
For those reasons, there is a significant amount of pressure to make the minimum changes necessary within the FEI to produce a better public image for now, leaving the more fundamental issues to be solved by “another generation in another crisis”.
“Those that are more recently getting into the discipline internationally and others who are not as committed to the existing systems are much more open-minded about change,” he says.
It would be in the best interests of endurance if an alternative global governance organization were to exist in any case, he suggested.
“This can be constructed to service aspects of the discipline the FEI brand under-serves rather than attempt to be a direct competitor with the FEI.
“Therefore, the full potential and scope of this new organization may not be clear until we have seen more of what the FEI is able to accomplish.
“A clear understanding of the governance mistakes we’ve made in the past will also be critically important in the development of a wise charter for any new organization that might arise out of this turmoil.”
There is a vast potential within distance riding that has yet to be tapped globally, he suggests.
That may well be so, but the concept of a breakaway group is not altogether straightforward.
It may not, for example, be a simple exercise for some countries with a national equestrian federation geared solely towards the rules and workings of the FEI to encompass a fresh set of governance measures.
And it cannot be some loose confederation of like-minded endurance nations. There will need to be a carefully drafted constitution and rules, as well as detailed disciplinary processes for inevitable infractions. How this will be funded is another important question.
The transgressions of several of the Group VII nations came to a head last year, with several European nations logging protests with the FEI, which led to the current process of reform.
The FEI organised a round-table summit and appointed a planning group, which is now finalising its proposals after a meeting of interested member-nations in Lausanne, Switzerland, early in February. Unfortunately, no FEI Group VII nations attended.
That was disappointing and one has to suspect that the FEI member nations leading the charge on this issue would have considered their non-appearance an affront.
Member nations will gather again in Lausanne late in April to consider the rule changes proposed for endurance and presumably give their approval.
It remains to be seen whether it will be a workable solution that satisfies the nations that have been most vocal on endurance abuses.
Endurance still faces the uncomfortable truth that the more aggressive form of endurance racing that finds favour in the Middle East is not necessarily a comfortable fit with the classic form.
One thing is certain. Some national federations will not sit back quietly and accept ongoing indiscretions in the Middle East.
One has to assume that the FEI has kept dialogue open with the Group VII nations since the February no-show. Perhaps the end result will be a show of global unity late in April and a genuine effort to improves things in the Middle East.
Of course, another solution may ultimately involve the nations at the centre of the storm leaving the FEI, which will sadly do nothing to address horse welfare concerns.
This is an entirely possible outcome. I cannot help but think of the words from last November of Andrew Finding, the chairman of the Endurance Strategic Planning Group, charged with overseeing endurance reform.
British-born Finding is a diplomatic chap, by all accounts, and I do not doubt he chooses his words very carefully.
He told member nations during the two-hour endurance session at the FEI General Assembly in Montreux, Switzerland: “The strategic plan we propose sets out a vision and a set of values we will expect everyone to adhere to if they genuinely want to be an active part of our family. Those who do not should be asked to leave us.”
For now, we watch and wait, knowing that only one thing is clear. If matters do not improve, the sport of endurance may be mapping a challenging course into uncharted territory.
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