August 18, 2008

The shortening of the Olympic cross-country course in Hong Kong and the change to a jump were discussed at a press conference last week with the FEI officials.

The shortening of the course - to 4560m from 5700m - and the modification to a fence shortly before the beginning of the competition upon the request of the President had been the subject of intense media speculation, and safety concerns by several team members.

The change was made to fence 18, the Stone Forest, after the course was inspected by FEI president Princess Haya. She requested that designer Mike Etherington-Smith move the boulders from the front of the jump.

Present at the press conference were the FEI President, FEI First and Second Vice Presidents, FEI Secretary General, the Chairman of the FEI Eventing Committee Wayne Roycroft and Olympic Technical Delegate for Eventing Giuseppe della Chiesa.

"This is the transparent FEI I have been elected to deliver," FEI President HRH Princess Haya said, "and you [the media] should get used to such information coming from us. Safety cannot be mixed with politics," she continued, "and I now beg you to concentrate on what really matters in these Games, the athletes and their wonderful performances."

In a report on the changing of fence 18, FEI second vice president Chris Hodson said the background circumstances of the issue include many aspects of eventing's present overriding concern with the safety of its competition. "The incidence of fatalities and severe injuries incurred while riding cross-country has attracted international media attention. Eventing was under strong threat of exclusion from the Olympic Games before safety became a recognized issue," the report said.

Only two days before the Olympic cross-country was to begin, a British rider was killed at an event in England. Emma Johnathan, 23, fell on the cross-country at a two-star event at Hartpury. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

"The injury list has intensified this particular pressure, so much so that simply not experiencing a death or severe injury is not enough, the discipline must show by its practices and procedures that it has done everything possible not only to produce a safe competition but also to have taken every precaution regardless of whether injury is a high degree of risk at any particular fence or not.

"And, of course, there is the very human element of requiring so far as practicable that every competitor not only experiences a good and safe competition but returns fit and well with the equine athletes in like condition, after experiencing a satisfying competition presented without any unnecessary peril," Hodson said.

According to the FEI report, the course was presented by the designer to the Technical Delegates and ground jury, approved, and then opened to the chefs and athletes who walked it and as is usual made their various comments. "This is invariable procedure, and the TDs and GJ expect to receive comments and requests from chefs and athletes and to decide whether to make alterations. Four or five alterations were made on this basis to the course after it was opened," the report said.

In the afternoon preceding the competition the designer escorted the President, the two Vice-Presidents, the Secretary-General, the Executive Director of Sport (designate), the Director of Communications (Interim) and their party around the course. The course was explained with comments, appreciation and no suggestion of real concern until Fence 18 was reached.

Before the course had been opened, Fence 18 had been intensively discussed by the TDs with the designer and an alteration had been made (including placing a wooden cobra in the line between A and B); contrary to the designer's intentions. However, the President's party concentrated on the size and locations of the boulders strewn under and in front of the approach to A and the line of boulders to the right of the rider's likely line between A and B.

The President, supported by her officials, suggested that the boulders in front of the fence presented a potential safety issue to a rider who might deviate from the lines on either side of the boulders and not make it over A. The boulders were not necessary to the purpose of the fence; they were there to direct athletes to either end of element A and not to attempt the centre. It was further suggested that a fall at A could bring a rider perilously close to the nearest boulder on the landing side of the element.

The designer said that the fence had been approved and there had been no complaint by any chef or rider. It was mentioned that there had been expressions of concern to the President. The designer, after a short discussion, said that he was prepared to agree to disagree and he immediately and without suggesting involvement of the TD or GJ gave telephoned directions that a crew was to remove the boulders and substitute foliage or other available material.

The TD arrived at the fence some time later to find the boulders gone and the replacement foliage on site. The alteration went further than that contemplated by the President; two boulders had been removed from the landing side.

It would clearly have been preferable for the TD and GJ to have been involved not only in the matter of removal of the boulders but also of the selection and placing of the substitute material. The reason was of course the shortness of time and the need to make such an alteration as soon as possible so that the athletes had the best chance of seeing it.

There was no desire whatever to override experienced officials or to substitute uninformed judgment for theirs, the report said.