Will Princess Haya seek the reins for a third presidential term? What are the prospects for global unity in endurance? What issues emerge around keeping equestrian sport within the Olympic fold? Neil Clarkson puts some questions to the FEI president following this week’s Sports Forum.
The nations of the FEI have swung the door open in emphatic fashion to provide Princess Haya with the opportunity of a third presidential term, but her final decision is still some weeks away.
An Extraordinary General Assembly (EGA) this week voted by 103-3 to change the constitution, extending the two-term limit on the presidency imposed in 2007 to three terms.
Haya was clearly moved by the strength of the vote as she returned to the auditorium to a standing ovation. She chose her words carefully, assuring delegates she was listening.
“I can tell you that I could not have asked for more than what you have told me today,” she said, stressing that she was fully committed to the role.
Within the hour, the FEI had issued a press release saying that Haya had signalled her intention to stand for re-election.
Haya has since revealed one compelling reason for the careful nature of her remarks, in which she had clearly indicated strong interest in a third term, but did not state outright that she would be standing – she has yet to discuss it with her family.
“I love the people that I work with, and I love equestrian sports,” she told Horsetalk. “I understand that the national federations have gone to extraordinary lengths, and it would have been ungrateful of me not to indicate that I was also prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to continue to serve them.
“I have not been involved in this process, and I did not even want to discuss the possibility of serving a third term with my family before the Extraordinary General Assembly.
“I do know that my family will support me in anything that I want to do personally, but that said, it is still only natural that I need to talk to them about it, as a matter of respect.
“Also, out of respect for the FEI, and any other potential candidates, it is only correct to allow the natural process to now take place and wait until the formal date for presidential candidates to come forward.
“I know there are good people out there who can do the job, probably far better than me. The point is, I am not willing to make any conclusive statement now which might prevent them making themselves known.”
Haya stresses that she values the belief in her expressed by national federations’ vote.
“I will not quit on them. But there are steps I need to take myself to do things properly, and when the time comes I will make a formal statement.”
The princess admits she had been torn by the fact that the two-term limit introduced under the FEI statutes had been at her behest.
“I felt that I could not change it in order to allow myself a third term in office. When I became FEI president the presidential term had been open, and I really do not believe that is correct.
“I feel strongly that there needs to be a place for new ideas, fresh faces, and there can never be a sense of entitlement to any position in a professional organisation.”
Following the introduction of the two-term limit, she had always assumed that her term was coming to an end at the end of this year.
However, national federations decided in the strong vote this week that presidents may serve three consecutive terms. It was a process in which Haya played no part.
“I have been able to come to terms with the fact that the national federations feel that three terms are acceptable,” she said.
Haya said that for the last four years she had always focused on getting her work done in time to hand over effectively and professionally to her successor.
“The question of what would happen to the FEI, what challenges it would face, and how I could prepare the organisation for anything on the horizon was naturally always on my mind. Ideas like the Olympic Council, were born from that.
“It’s natural to want to hand over proudly, and equip the organisation best for its future, and in a way, I have to say that when the discussion of me staying began, I felt a personal sense of failure, because I took it to mean, and it was said that some of the changes the organization has made are too nascent to be considered institutionalised.
“I came to terms with those worries when I watched President Rogge of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) end his term after 12 years. I admire and respect him greatly, and I believe that he was a perfect example of integrity in his last year in office.
“He did not interfere at all in the presidential candidates that were in play to succeed him, and I understood clearly by watching him what must be done.
“When your time is up, it’s up, and you cannot try to manage the future or protect what you believe is best, or try to steer the organisation towards a candidate that will continue the work you have started. You have to trust, and you have to let go,” she said.
“The question of the extension of the FEI presidential term from eight years to 12 has been dogging me for the last year and a half. And up until last summer I managed to push it aside and get on with work.
“In the last few months, since the General Assembly in Montreux, the question itself took on a life of its own when it was presented in the form of a petition by the national federations there.
“And I have managed effectively up until the last month and a half not to allow it to affect my work at all. But in the last while, it had begun to overshadow most things, and even in my natural day the question was asked of me many times.
“It became a real confusion, and an enormous weight. On 9 April, I finally asked a person that I very much respect the question of what I should do.
“I was given very sound advice: To see if it married with my personal goals and my family in my own mind, and not to obsess over it as a personal issue until the Extraordinary General Assembly had made their decision. And that is what I did.”
The last date for presidential candidates to formally declare their candidacy has yet to be set by the FEI Bureau, but will probably be in June or July.
The Olympic question
Haya, when she addressed this week’s Sport Forum, stressed that the equestrian movement should not take its Olympic place for granted. Was she simply being cautious, or does she see evidence that equestrian sport needs to be proactive on the issue?
“Do you know anyone at all in our world who can afford to take their position for granted? A student, a parent, a wife or husband, a professional?
“History is littered with examples of what happens when individuals take anything in life for granted, so why should the FEI consider its place in the Olympic movement a done deal?
“If you view it that way it’s more of a state of mind that should be an accepted one. We as an organisation are a face among many on a canvas, and the future generations of sporting enthusiasts are the painters.
“We have to always strive to provide them with colours that are more vibrant than other sports can.
“But, yes, we have been informed … that in December there will be an Extraordinary Session of the IOC to decide on the way the Olympic programme is formed, and that there will be an effort made to allow new sports in.”
The IOC is forming working groups – 16 of them – to look at different options and present findings to that session in December. “In other words,” she says, “they will create a framework which will be decided upon. That framework will then be in place to sort out or categorise the strong sports from the weak, and the criteria they are judged on will also be decided.
“History is littered with examples of what happens when individuals take anything in life for granted, so why should the FEI consider its place in the Olympic movement a done deal?”
“Whether they are expensive for venues, whether they have large athlete quotas, whether they have exciting formats, whether they have good broadcasting numbers. Those are the kind of things that will be considered fundamentally and agreed on in December in a framework.
“One question I ask myself, and many others ask of me, is: ‘We had such an amazing Games in London, our stands were packed, the sport was excellent, we ticked every box, what more can be expected of us?’
“Well, there is more. The Olympic Committee judges its sports on many criteria, and it uses a lot of technical comparative data to decide what sports are improving and pleasing to a global audience. It looks at global broadcast numbers, it looks at digital media numbers, it looks at gender equality, it looks at stadium numbers, it looks at overall venue costs, to name but a few.
“My standpoint to the IOC has been very clear. If we in the FEI and the equestrian community know beforehand what comparative data they are going to use, we will be happy to work accordingly.
“I believe as a family we can pull together and produce our sport in a way that makes us competitive against the others. But, yes, we will have to be prepared to accept that framework, and adapt to give ourselves the best fighting chance.
“If, for example, we analyse the criteria they use and see that they are putting greater weight on broadcast numbers, then we will have to look at how we stand against other sports.
“We may have to take steps like minimising our teams in order to allow more individual athletes to compete in our disciplines so that we get better broadcast results because we have more flags. If we see, for example, that as a sport our venue costs are higher than most, we will perhaps have to look at ways to drive those costs down.
“That’s also why we, as an Olympic International Federation, want to have more involvement in the delivery of the Games in our disciplines so that we have more control of the costs.
“Without knowing what the framework is we can make endless presumptions, so we will have to wait. I guarantee that we in the FEI are already considering all the possibilities, and if there is any news at all, we will be very quick to share it transparently with our community, because this is about all of us,” she said.
“It would be pointless to panic; that never solves anything at all. Neither does being defensive. But there has been a clearly communicated process to examine the Olympic programme, and we have to be prepared to be open-minded, proactive and unified in our three Olympic disciplines to protect our place.”
Haya confirms that behind-the-scenes work has been going on over the concept of the FEI Olympic Council, the creation of which was approved by a unanimous vote during the Extraordinary General Assembly.
“I never presumed that I should pre-empt the fact that our Extraordinary General Assembly would agree, but there was more than enough positive feedback on the idea from the Group chairs, who were in touch with their national federations, to know that there was also no point in waiting to explore if it was possible that IOC members would accept to be a part of the council.
“Additionally, there was the factor that if the EGA had been presented with the idea and accepted it, and then no IOC members had agreed to be a part of it; it would have been a disaster for the FEI and our disciplines in the Olympic movement. So, yes, there was a little behind-the-scenes homework done before the idea was floated.
“The question was asked verbally of the IOC members who had links to equestrian sport if they would agree to be a part of it if the idea, were to be accepted by our assembly.
“Once that answer was confirmed by a majority, then the next step was to run the idea by the Executive Board, and following their agreement, work with the secretary-general and the head of legal, Mikael Rentsch, to create the correct statutory wording for the inclusion.
“And I do remember the day this discussion took place: I was late for my daughter’s school assembly and I was slumped as low as I could get in the back of the audience whispering on the phone to Mikael and Ingmar, and Mikael was laughing that I was not affording the subject the correct reverence.
“I still get teased about that, but they did it perfectly, and my daughter remembered her lines, so all was well.”
Haya said the Executive Board presented the exact wording for the statutory amendment to the Bureau, which accepted it, so she sought written acceptance from IOC members, should the motion be passed by the EGA.
Haya confirmed that, following that “beautiful moment of green cards” which approved formation of the council, she had written to the IOC members letting them know the motion was accepted.
“We will be able to announce the full composition of the Olympic Council shortly,” she said.
“The FEI is a big ship, this is not bureaucracy, but it’s a global organisation; these are the kinds of steps that every decision takes in different forms.”
National federations want to keep endurance together
On the enduranc controversy centred on the Middle East, Haya believes there remains a willingness and desire among FEI nations keep the sport as one.
“I do believe that the majority of the national federations want to keep endurance together under the FEI umbrella, and many of them have expressed that viewpoint during the consultation process with the Endurance Strategic Planning Group (ESPG).
“The mood in the endurance round table at the Sports Forum was very positive and there was really strong support for the work that has been done by the Endurance Committee and the team at headquarters to put in place the recommendations of the ESPG.”
She believes the work of the recently formed endurance task force, appointed to investigate practical solutions to ensure horse welfare and a level playing field in the sport, will dovetail with those efforts and provide strong support to those efforts to date.
She acknowledges there has been criticism from some quarters suggesting that the endurance reform process is taking too long, but says: “It is always a delicate balance in any organisation to maintain the efficiency required to deal with issues quickly while still allowing the correct processes that are essential to take place.
“The FEI has a very clear and transparent, not to mention tried and tested, process for dealing with reform. This process is the accepted one that is approved and expected by our member national federations.
“Due diligence must be done, the correct experts always need to be assembled and given independence to give an additional vantage point. Dialogue in the form of consultation with the national federations is mandatory; a framework for feedback from the national federations and the technicians is required.
“The FEI has moved as quickly through these steps as is humanly possible. Our very best people have been part of this effort. I have the greatest respect for Andrew Finding, and John McEwen, and Brian Sheahan, and I really believe that they have done and will continue to do absolutely everything that they can, as fast as they can in conjunction with the endurance family and the national federations.
WEG: “We need to ensure that this product is truly sustainable”
Haya confirms that elements of the World Equestrian Games face review.
“It is absolutely true that the financial model for the World Equestrian Games needs to be reviewed,” she says, “and we need to ensure that this product is truly sustainable.
“The FEI has been studying this issue in great depth since 2010,” she said, noting that a Deloitte study had identified a clear economic benefit for the state of Kentucky from staging of the Games in Lexington that year.
“But while the study showed amazing results for the community and the city, the costs that burden the Organising Committee are still far too heavy.
“We need to maximise on those key areas of community benefit, and find a way to drive down the Organising Committee costs.
“Many of the efforts we are making to look at solutions to drive down our costs for the Olympic Games can also be applied to the World Equestrian Games.”
She believes there could be a bigger role for the FEI in organising WEG in the future, noting that the world governing body is very involved in the organisation of the Normandy Games, which start late in August . That involvement has been much greater than in previous Games, she says.
“We are aware that we probably needed to have a more hands-on approach for our flagship event, and the appointment of Tim Hadaway as director of games and championships in April of last year was a first step towards that end.
“Tim was the equestrian competition manager at Greenwich Park in 2012 and was widely credited as the man who delivered incredible Olympic and Paralympic equestrian events. Now he is the direct liaison between the FEI and the Organising Committees.
“He works to create a real partnership with them to deliver top quality Games, and not just for the FEI World Equestrian Games, but also the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Youth Olympic Games, and we are convinced other major FEI Championships will benefit from his experience.
“As regards Normandy, we are working more closely with the Organising Committee than we ever have with Organising Committees in the past. The interaction is daily, and has been that way since Normandy won the bid.
“We are looking forward to strengthening our Games, and I believe Normandy will be the best we have had yet. We always have enjoyed having the best horses and riders in the world at these Games, but I think we are learning how to create the perfect backdrop for them – one that does justice to the beauty of our sport.”
Haya says the quest to create the perfect backdrop and allow the best opportunities to showcase equestrian sport never ends. “That’s where the staff at headquarters work to use every opportunity to promote and sell our sport to new audiences, and to package our disciplines better than other international federations package theirs.”
“Not many communities could have embraced change like ours did”
Haya lists several achievements during her seven and a half years in the role that gave her a great deal of satisfaction: FEI Solidarity, the new Nations Cup series, the creation of the International Horse Sport Confederation, and the FEI’s transfer from a sponsorship structure based on selling series, to having sponsorship partners such as Swiss luxury watchmaker Longines.
“If you listen to the national federations and the community, they are the things they see as really life-changing for our community and our sport.
“In a way, all the other deliverables were only things that brought us into line with other international federations; they were not really achievements to be proud of.
“The changes were of course hard, and I think that not many communities could have embraced change like ours did.
“We have done a lot in the last seven and a half years, but we must bear in mind that they were required changes – required for us to survive in a modern sporting canvas. They did not bring us ahead in any way.
“And we still have not regained the popularity that horse sport enjoyed some 20 years ago. The real aim should be to get back there, and then to surpass it.
“The one thing that I am most looking forward to, and praying will be successful, is the OIE General Assembly in May this year in Paris, where the high-health high-performance model will be put to the floor.
“Then the barriers to transport and quarantine will be overcome. For us, this is the one massive obstacle to explosive global growth in all our disciplines.
“If it happens, and I pray it will, I believe it will be an absolute watershed in the history of horse sport, and horse racing.
“We still have not regained the popularity that horse sport enjoyed some 20 years ago.”
“But you asked what I felt where my greatest achievements in seven and a half years?
“Personally, they are moments that are snapshots I treasure. Some funny, some sad, others happy. If I were to quit my job tomorrow it would probably be those moments that stay with me more than the big structural moves.
“I remember one day at the office being told by John Roche that a rider in South America had fallen from a horse in training and was in critical condition. Between us we managed a medical evacuation to a top hospital in the States where they saved his life. And although it’s not the life he had before, I give thanks every time I hear from him and his wife.
“Another time, I got a call in the early hours of the morning from a national federation with horses stuck at an airport. They had been blocked by customs and not allowed to offload, and the horses had not had water for five hours.
“I woke up every person I knew, and it was solved. The team went ahead and won the championships they had shipped their horses to, and the officials I woke up in the middle of the night – all complete strangers to me – ended up watching the competitions and keeping in touch with our sport.
“And then there are just moments when I get to go into the field as FEI president – the big shows are always a huge honour, but it’s the remote places I like best. Far flung corners of the world where national federations exist, and they only have a few horses in the country, and the national federation is a tiny bunch of passionate people with no facilities but big dreams, and they love horses.
“I have been to many countries like that, wading through mud and bad terrain to watch ponies jumping very rustic fences and kids who can’t believe an FEI president has come to watch them, and the way they smile makes me feel like that’s where I count.
“Inevitably, I always get a little girl who looks at me and accuses me of not being a princess because I don’t have my crown on with my wellies, and somehow they are always pacified by the comment that the FEI makes me wear horsey clothes to be like them … but that’s where I feel I make a difference that’s real.”