The FEI has come under fire from the world’s highest sports court over the application of its exemption to the three-judge rule for CDI3* dressage events.
The exemption has been used by smaller nations since 2010, helping them to save money.
Such events require a minimum of three foreign judges on the ground jury. The exemption allows smallers nations to run such events with only two foreign judges.
This has saved them the cost of flying in an additional foreign judge, usually in business class, for each event.
The exemption has been sought and granted by the FEI 25 times since its introduction, including by New Zealand and Australia.
The FEI recently announced an end to the exemption from January 1.
The exemption was a central theme in interwoven legal action involving Dominican Republic rider Yvonne Losos de Muñiz and the Dominican Republic Equestrian Federation against the FEI and the Brazilian National Equestrian Federation. It arose over events in Brazil in which Brazilian rider Tavares de Almeida gained points towards qualifying to compete in dressage at the London Olympics.
The two arbitrations at issue centred on the qualification and participation procedures for the dressage competition at the 2012 Olympic Games, the Court of Arbitration for Sport tribunal which heard the case said.
The qualification and participation criteria for the dressage competition at the Olympics are set out by the FEI, with a points system used to determine which countries may send riders to the Olympics. Countries are grouped based on seven geographical regions.
Only one country per group qualifies to send a rider to the Olympics.
The two countries at issue in the case – Brazil and the Dominican Republic – are both in the Central and South America group.
The international dressage competitions at the centre of the action were held in Brazil on February 10-12 and February 24-26 February 2012.
The competitions were CDI3* events – a category of event where the results count for Olympic qualification.
Five judges, three from Brazil and two “foreign” (non-Brazilian) judges made up the ground jury that judged the competitions.
Before the competitions, by emails In January, the Dominican Republic Equestrian Federation contacted the FEI after seeing the draft schedule for the first of the competitions.
It raised concerns about the fact that the events were to be judged by only two foreign judges and pointed out that the FEI Rules for Dressage Events required that there be at least three foreign judges for the event.
The federation also noted the use of Salim Nigri as one of the Brazilian judges.
It suggested this amounted to a conflict of interest, as he was a former chef d’equipe for Brazil and the current dressage director of the Brazilian federation.
The FEI responded by email the next day that the FEI regularly granted exceptions to the requirement that there be three foreign judges.
As to Nigri, the FEI said that it had contacted him and that he had explained that he did not have a conflict of interest because he was not currently the chef d’equipe for Brazil and had no responsibility for selecting the team or individual riders from Brazil.
Under the circumstances, the FEI said that it considered it a “non-issue”.
The Dominican Republic body replied the same day: “We fully trust both local and foreign FEI judges to complete their work correctly, although in my opinion these exceptions to the rule are not a fair solution for Olympic qualifiers and need to be evaluated.”
The competitions were then held as scheduled in mid and late February.
Brazilian Tavares de Almeida and her horse, Samba, finished first in the individual rankings for Central and South America, Group E, with 1353 points from their eight best results.
Brazil therefore qualified as the country in Group E to send a rider to the Olympics to compete in dressage.
Losos de Muniz, and her horse, Liebling II, finished second in the individual rankings from Group E with 1326 points.
She had not competed in either of the competitions at the centre of the action, but took part in various other FEI-recognized competitions in the United States to gain qualifying points.
On February 26, the Dominican Republic’s equestrian body filed a protest with the Secretary General of the FEI.
It contended, among other things, that the results of the competitions should not count toward qualification for the Olympics because there were only two international judges and that Nigri had a conflict of interest.
It argued the FEI should never have approved the holding of the competitions in the first place because the Brazilian body submitted the draft schedules for those events less than 16 weeks before they were to be held and did not invite other national federations to attend.
The decision outlined the handling of the issues that ultimately led to the appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which heard the case in Switzerland in July.
The FEI and the Brazilian body, in its submission to the court, said that dressage has traditionally been strong in certain regions, such as Western and Central Europe, but much less so in other parts of the world.
As a consequence, one of the major goals of the FEI is to promote dressage outside of Europe, in particular by offering riders reasonable opportunities to compete at international level within their own region.
For several years, Brazil has contributed to this effort by organizing international dressage competitions.
One of the challenges in organizing international dressage events in Central and South America is the cost associated with attracting and making travel arrangements for three foreign FEI judges, most of whom reside in Europe.
In an effort to address this, in 2009, the FEI Dressage Committee decided to create an exception to the three-foreign-judge rule for CDI3* events outside Europe.
The FEI confirmed and formalized this decision at its meeting of January 18, 2010, in which dispensation could be given to require only two foreign judges.
The exception has been requested and granted 25 times since its introduction and has never been denied when requested.
Countries that have held events under the exception include Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
The availability of the exception has been known to the entire dressage community since 2010. The FEI had received no negative comments before the end of January 2012, when the Dominican Republic Equestrian Federation contacted the FEI regarding the competitions in question.
During the qualification period for the Olympics, Brazil organized 12 CDI3* events. Ten of those were organized with the benefit of the exception. No challenge or complaint was raised until the present matter.
The tribunal, in its decision, traversed the reasons for the exemption allowing two foreign judges.
It noted that the FEI Dressage Committee ultimately delegated the day-to-day administration and application of the Exception Memo to the FEI Dressage Department.
“Throughout 2010, feedback about the exception was positive and so the FEI Dressage Department simply continued to apply it, though there is no evidence that the FEI Dressage Committee ever decided to extend or renew it.
“More importantly, there is no evidence that the FEI Dressage Committee ever subsequently considered, much less decided, to create an exception to the three-foreign-judge rule under the Dressage Olympic Ranking List once that List came into existence.
“Rather, the FEI Dressage Department just kept on applying the Exception Memo – including for the competitions at issue here – as it had done prior to the Olympic qualification period.
“In the panel’s view, this practice of the FEI Dressage Department cannot be construed as a decision of the FEl Dressage Committee to create an exception to the three-foreign-judge rule under the Dressage Olympic Ranking List.
“Rather, it appears that no-one on the FEI Dressage Committee (or in the FEI Dressage Department, for that matter) ever considered the issue. The panel considers the FEI’s oversight in this regard more than a little unfortunate, as it lies at the heart of this dispute – a dispute that has caused unnecessary upset and uncertainty for Mrs Losos de Muñiz and Ms Tavares de Almeida, as well as their national federations.
“It does not, however, provide a basis for deciding not to include the results of the competitions in the Olympic rankings,” it said.
The panel said it took the view that the scores in question should be included.
“The evidence in this case shows that it was well known in the dressage community that the FEI was routinely approving the holding of CDI3* events outside Europe with only two foreign judges during the Olympic qualification period.
“It was not until January 2012, shortly before the close of the qualification period, that the [Dominican Republic Equestrian Federation] raised any concern in this regard with the FEI.
“Furthermore, the majority of the panel considers that the FEI’s approval of the competitions and their inclusion on the official calendar, as well as the absence of a challenge before they were held, created a legitimate expectation on the part of the riders who participated that the results would count towards the Olympic rankings.
“The decisive argument for the panel, however, is that riders have no influence on the organization of events and no ability to know whether the organizer has a valid exception to the three-foreign-judge rule under the Dressage Olympic Ranking List.
“Moreover, in this case, there was no evidence showing that the [Brazilian federation] or Ms Tavares de Almeida violated any applicable rules in the qualifying process.
“In light of this, the panel considers that it would be unfair to Ms Tavares de Almeida not to include the results of the competitions in the Olympic rankings because of a mistake that occurred elsewhere – namely, within the FEI.”
The panel said neither Losos de Muñiz nor the Dominican Republic Equestrian Federation had provided any evidence to suggest that having only two foreign judges on the ground jury affected the results of the competitions in any way, much less that it benefited Tavares de Almeida.
The panel rejected the appeal and upheld the scores.
However, in commenting on costs in respect of two of the actions, it noted: “The tribunal considers that the FEI bears responsibility for both of these cases having arisen at all because the competitions were not organized in accordance with the Dressage Olympic Ranking List due to an administrative oversight on the part of the FEI.”