How safe is equestrian sport in the Olympic movement?


It may surprise some equestrian fans to know that the sport’s part in the Olympics is by no means guaranteed, even though its games history spans 100 years.

That is not to say that the executioner’s axe is hanging over it, but equestrian sport has to face the fact it is not so mainstream, such as athletics or swimming, that its Olympic future is entirely secure. Under current President Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee has shown itself more prepared than ever to change its sporting offerings, as anyone involved with softball, baseball, rugby 7s or golf can testify.

International Equestrian Federation (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.

FEI President Princess Haya

That she faced criticism for her remarks is somewhat surprising, for if anyone should know the true lie of the international equestrian landscape, it is surely Haya.

She is not only the FEI president, but also a member of the IOC.

Haya was reported by Horse & Hound in Britain as saying there was no guarantee that horse sports could survive in the Olympics beyond 2012.  “The FEI has a huge fight to even get to 2012,” she said at the time.

“The IOC has heard from our stakeholders and wrote to us about the set-up and presentation of dressage.

“The popularity of dressage is abnormally low and there are complaints about judging and the makeup of judging panels and committees,” she said. “Anyone who thinks equestrian sports are secure for London is mistaken.

“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.”

Given the approach of the London Olympics, it is timely to look back over the last three and a half years to assess whether the case for equestrian sports to remain an Olympic discipline has been strengthened since Haya’s worrying comments.

Firstly, Haya’s comments need to be considered in perspective.

It was not long after the Beijing Olympics, in which horse events were held in Hong Kong. It left Haya with some major internal issues to deal with.

Haya is understood to have long had concerns over the image and delivery of dressage within the FEI.

Each discipline’s committee operated fairly autonomously at that stage and dressage’s modus operandi was known to have created some angst within the FEI hierarchy.
Events at Hong Kong, including an unscheduled late-night meeting of chefs d’equipe from a few selected countries to discuss judging matters, may well have played a part in the decision to disband the Dressage Committee a few months later at the FEI General Assembly in Buenos Aires.

Horse doping at the Olympics 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. Norway was to ultimately lose its bronze medal in showjumping as a result.

Sports don’t make it to the Olympics on a whim. They must demonstrate global reach and appeal, and meet the standards of the Olympic ideals.

Yes, the doping cases involved the application of a substance to the skin, and many would be prepared to accept it was more an error than a wilful act, but it is hard to imagine the IOC being anything but angry over the whole affair. As cycling will attest, doping issues have great potential to stain a sport.

Perhaps, Haya might have been better to put a more positive spin on how equestrian sport could lift its act. But, in the end, the FEI will be measured by its deeds rather than its words.

On most measures, equestrian sport has strengthened its case of Olympic inclusion, and it would take a major fall from grace in London – fatalities or another string of positive dope tests – to seriously threaten that.

The FEI’s Clean Sport initiative is well on track and widely supported, leaving behind the embarrassing debacle of the so-called progressive list of drugs that had most of the world’s major equestrian nations up in arms in late 2009.

It showed a far more rigorous approach to the drugs issue at the World Equestrian Games, and will no doubt continue to do so in London.

It has also done much over the last 10 years to improve safety, especially in eventing, where new deformable structures have significantly reduced the rate of rotational falls.
It has acknowledged the importance of extending its global reach, and many of the constitutional reforms it is considering, following a task force review last year, will help in that regard should they come to fruition.

Equestrian sport brings several plusses to the Olympic table.

It is the only mixed sport at the games and has a high ratio of female participation. It also provides an avenue for Games participation for older athletes.

Greenwich Park during the Olympic test event last year.

While many nations have little interest in equestrian pursuits, many of the world’s major sporting nations – with the major exception of China – also do well in equestrian competition, which means television audiences in lucrative markets are reasonably strong.

The sport is also increasingly popular with some of the new sporting powerbroker nations, especially in the Middle East, which is likely to host an Olympics at some stage in the relatively near future (Doha in Qatar has bid to host in 2020).

Few can deny that most equestrian sports provide a great television spectacle.
The choice of historic Greenwich Park for the London equestrian events has caused a great deal of controversy in the British capital, amid fears of damage to its environs.

However, no-one can deny it will showcase equestrian sport in a spectacular setting, which will undoubtedly garner it more international coverage than in any previous Olympic Games.

Tickets for London have sold well, which will also strengthen the sport’s hand. The downside includes the cost of facilities, especially for the eventing cross-country course, but equestrian sport is not alone in requiring multimillion-dollar investment for a decent Olympic venue.

The Greenwich Park facilities will be temporary, but for most nations that host the Games, their facilities became a valuable long-term addition to their sporting stable.

Quarantine issues will always be a challenge, but some of these can be surmounted. In the Sydney Games, the horses entered Australia and stayed in a wider secure area, effectively avoiding the need for the usual quarantine measures.

Moving horses internationally can be costly, but the mass airlifts organised for the World Equestrian Games proved that even this can be made more cost effective than nations making their own arrangements.

Kiwi showjumper Katie McVean sold her Olympic hope Delphi to Saudi Arabia last May, for a sum reportedly in the millions.

Horse-trading before the end of 2011, when horses with Olympic potential were bought and sold before the IOC deadline, had an uncomfortable feel to it, even though it was perfectly within the rules.

The main buyers were from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, and the horse flesh obtained will no doubt lift their chances somewhat. That said, the greater involvement of dollars in professional sport will surprise no-one. Horses, whether racing, polo or equestrian, have long held an attraction for the world’s wealthy and it is perhaps a surprise that it has taken this long for some nations to pick up on the equestrian possibilities at an Olympic games.

Sources suggest that Haya’s comments in 2008 took many equestrian sports administrators by surprise. They were perhaps overly negative at a time when a more positive spin may have helped.

That said, Haya’s membership of the IOC and her role as FEI president puts her at the forefront of both equestrian sport and the Olympic movement. No doubt, her assessment was pretty close to the mark, and it seems certain she had some pretty unpalatable feedback from IOC officials over the Beijing Games.

On the whole, the FEI has worked effectively to advance equestrian sport’s Olympic cause.
Haya is known to be well-liked and respected within the IOC family, which can only help. Her royal status and link to the ruler of Dubai will not have gone unnoticed within the IOC family.

Today, Haya noted that the London Games would mark 100 years of equestrian sport in the Olympic movement.

She said: “We have worked tirelessly over the past number of years to ensure that horse sport falls in line with all the IOC requirements, that it is clean, transparent, cost-effective and safe.

“The IOC conducts a thorough review of the Olympic Games programme after each edition of the Games and, of course, that applies to all the sports on the programme, not only to equestrian sport.

Equestrian Sports New Zealand CEO Jim Ellis
Equestrian Sports New Zealand CEO Jim Ellis

“Protecting our status in the Olympic Movement is very important to the FEI, and my role as a member of the IOC provides me with the opportunity to promote our sport and our federation in the future.

“We have made great strides in the past 100 years and we are now looking forward to another 100 years of equestrian sport in the Olympic Games.”

Equestrian Sports New Zealand chief executive Jim Ellis agrees. “Greenwich has the chance to be a watershed for equestrian’s involvement in the Olympics, securing its involvement for a long and vibrant future,” he said.

“The public profile of the sport will never be higher given the location, the crowds and the global television audience. LOCOG [the London Games organising committee], the IOC and the FEI have given the sport its greatest platform and the competing nations must now play their part.”

6 thoughts on “How safe is equestrian sport in the Olympic movement?

  • February 23, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    There are several points being missed by the FEI, Princess Haya and the author. Firstly, the selection of Greenwich will not increase televsion coverage of the equestrian sectiions significantly; this is the Olympic Games, it already gets broad spectrum coverage world wide and the countries with interest in a particular sport will doubtless choose to cover the ones with national interest if there is a conflict in timings. Equestrian may get more coverage of there is nothing else on at the time. The eventing is the first medal to be decided in which Great Britain (and undoubtedly New Zealand) has a significant chance of winning and therefore the iconic view will be much admired here and the timing of this medal was one reason why the location was chosen…… hopefully the very unhorsey British press will have a British winner (potentially one with a royal connection if Zara makes the squad) with the iconic view making the item front page news.
    Secondly, the selection of Greenwich has meant the cost of staging the equestrian section has become extreme. Recent estimates are close to sixty million pounds with absolutely no tangible legacy to show for it aside from ‘bringing equestrianism to a new inner city audience’ which is just spin as most of the inner city audience have not been able to get tickets. My brothers family live less than five minutes from the park and could not even get tickets for the test event. The nations which are opposed to horses in the Games must be rubbing their hands together with glee as one of the most horse loving nations on the planet, spend this huge sum with nothing to show for it after the Games ends. Athens. Barcelona, Hong Kong are all examples of recent Olympic venues where the cost of equestrianism was heavily critisised but at least they could be justified by e continued use of the facilites/improvements made for the Games. Spending so much money on a venue far from ideal and leaving nothing to show for it, is totally playing into the critics hands.
    Third, a sport may have a discipline removed or replaced without losing the entire sport from the Olympics. There is much pressure from other sports within the horse worl dto become an Olympic discipline but one of the current three will need to be dropped. Reining, vaulting and endurance all have aspirations but for those to succeed one of the current three must be dropped. There is nothing to say a discipline must be replaced if one is just plain dropped, there will be a meeting shortly after the 2012 debrief when all these things are decided for the Games six years ahead. That means equestrainism in some form is probably safe for Rio in 2016 but there must be a huge question mark over the participation of eventing because it has far less participants worldwide than almost any other FEI horse sport and costs twice as much at least to stage, which Greenwich is ably demonstrating.
    Horse people need to wake up and smell the coffee. The British are convinced they will win Gold in the eventing and have geared their whole Olympic equestrian bid towards that end. It is being run by eventing people, for eventing people and there is little recognition that outside the UK, the sport is a very poor relation to most other equine sports. That was almost proven in one hit at the test event where no-one connected with London Equestrian had the slightest clue that the surface, perfectly adequate for eventers jumping one round at 1.20m out of a hack canter and more used to jumping on grass anyway, was not going to be even remotely satisfactory to showjumpers who jump four days out of five over 1.60 with the first round being against the clock. Even showjumping and dressage are very minority sports in comparisson to, say, most raquet games and consequently equestrian sport supporters are heavily out numbered at the IOC. So it was always absolute folly for LOCOG to play into the hands of the opposition, who now have a perfect opportunity to get rid of equestrian because the cost of London’s horse endeavours, will be huge with nothing tangible to show for them except a few good pictures. As long as it isn’t raining of course!!

  • February 24, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Extremely disappointing if equine were to be dropped, from the olympics as it would take many years to get reinstated.
    Also the impact on the equine breeding industry that employes many people on a full time basis , including feed merchants.
    Conclude – a huge devastating impact , that it would cost each country if deleted.

  • March 4, 2012 at 9:51 am

    At most Games and certainly potentially in the UK, cross-country day is still the biggest crowd-puller of any single event. The most sad thing about Greenwich is the limited spectator capacity to 40,000 when potential demand ( eg Badminton & Burghley) is regularly 5 times greater. That means an awful lot of disappointed punters.. to say nothing of foregone ticket sales. I note that the Transport for London website is advising that at the close of Cross-country day we may expect platform queue time at Greenwich to exceed an hour !!
    My personal bug-bear is the 3 from 5 scoring format for the Olympic Team Eventing. Now if it was 4 from 5 to count it would require proper strength-in-depth. It would also require judgement and tactics to ensure a completion in the full spirit of a team competition and indeed the principles of the Eventing test of all-round horsemanship.
    Final soapbox? It was pure Loo-lah land PR to encourage all horses voluntarily to be screened for substances when they arrived in Hong Kong; then apparently secretly introduce a more sensitive testing regime than ever before during the actual competition.

  • March 22, 2012 at 3:36 am

    No way! I think Equestrian is a great sport. I can’t see any reason behind the issue of pulling out Equestrian in the Olympics. I am with you Princess Haya.


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