A commission of inquiry has found that South African Paul Hart was wrongly replaced as the nation’s only eventing competitor at the 2012 London Olympics.
In a case that went all the way to the highest sporting court in the world, Hart was replaced at the Games by Alex Peternell.
However, an independent three-person commission in South Africa that examined the case has ruled that Hart and his horse, Heartbreak Hill, should have gone to the Games.
Hart welcomed the findings, which were tinged with sadness over the death of Heartbreak Hill, known as Harry, in a tragic accident shortly after the Olympics.
“My road to the Olympics came at immense personal cost to me both emotionally and financially,” Hart said after the commission’s findings were released.
“Nevertheless, I believed that the privilege of being selected to represent my country far outweighed any negative repercussions of doing so.
“The death of my horse Harry shortly after the Olympic Games in a tragic accident was extremely difficult to deal with.
“At the time, it was difficult to conceive of how a path forward could be forged amid such a series of immense tragedies. In a sense, these findings bring me peace – the world will know that Harry died a champion; a deserving ambassador of Team South Africa, London 2012.
“Despite the circumstances that prevented me from competing at the Olympics, I urge aspirant riders to pursue their Olympic dreams in the future.
“To this end, I urge the South African Equestrian Community to ensure accountability and transparency on the part of duty-bearers responsible for the selection of athletes to prevent future candidates from experiencing the turmoil to which I have been subjected.”
Peternell ultimately competed at the Games, but was not selected to do so by the South African Equestrian Association (SAEA). He was not nominated to do so by the South African Equestrian Federation (SAEF).
“He was not chosen to represent South Africa by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC),” the commission, comprising C.J. McAslin, B. Maselle and J. Nicolaou, said. “All of these bodies approved of Mr Paul Hart.
“Nevertheless, Mr Peternell’s participation at the Olympic Games was in terms of awards handed down in his favour by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on 21 and 24 July, 2012.”
The joint commission was established by the SAEA and SAEF to examine issues around the selection.
Several witnesses appeared before the commission, with Hart and Peternell providing written submissions.
The commission found that the selection criteria were determined by different administrative bodies with disparate views, which resulted in a lack of communication between SASCOC, SAEF and the SAEA.
“The selection criteria should, in future, be discussed and agreed between the respective administrative bodies so that they may be implemented uniformly,” the commission said.
Despite the shortcoming in the criteria, the selection process itself was independent and there was no evidence of any conflict of interest or bias on the part of any person involved, it found.
However, the conduct of the parties concerning the proceedings before the CAS was unbecoming, it found.
“Before addressing the specific aspects of our mandate, we deem it prudent to draw attention to two issues that we believe lie at the heart of this matter, namely a lack of communication and a failure to appreciate the full implications of participating in the Olympic Games which, in a sense, are themselves interrelated.
“The unfortunate result of these failings was that two athletes found themselves in invidious positions which they should never been in had all persons concerned, including the riders themselves, realised the significance of participating in the Olympic Games and communicated openly with each other.”
It noted that the 2012 Games was the first Olympics in which South Africa had qualified in the eventing discipline.
“It is clear from the evidence that the organisational structures of the eventing discipline in South Africa did not fully appreciate the implications of participating in the Olympic Games …” the commission said. Instead, they treated it as any other international event where the dictates of the FEI applied.
The facts, it said, demonstrated that not a single person or entity involved in the case, ranging from the past president of the SAEF to the riders themselves, realised that the Olympic Games is governed by the International Olympic Committee and its national affiliates such as SASCOC.
As a result, the criteria and policies of SASCOC were largely ignored throughout the process; at least, that is, until it was too late to recover from the error.
The commission traversed the criteria of the different bodies that ultimately led to the selection dispute that went to the CAS.
“Mr Peternell ultimately participated in the Olympic Games because he succeeded in persuading the CAS that the riders ranking list did not, and should not be understood to, refer to a rider/horse combination.
“The CAS agreed with Mr Peternell’s contention and clearly the rider ranking is, on the face of it, capable of the interpretation put on it by Mr Peternell and sustained by the CAS.
“We do, however, believe that if Mr Peternell is honest with himself he will agree that the contention is contrary to every understanding in the sport and was probably made against his better judgment.
“In this regard we do not regard it as insignificant that in Mr Peternell’s very first communication with the SAEA a mere 3 days after he had achieved a qualifying result on Asih, Mr Peternell did not refer to the rider ranking list at all but acknowledged that the selectors would base their decision on a rider/horse combination.
“In summary, the selection criteria incorporated a criterion which was never intended by the FEI to be used for the selection of an individual athlete, namely, the FEI Riders Ranking List.
“Having adopted that criterion SASCOC, the SAEF and the SAEA created the potential for divergent views on the true meaning of the criterion and its application.
“Mr Peternell took advantage of the ambiguity created by the administering bodies but, from a purely legal perspective, we do not believe that he should be criticised for seeking to apply a strict interpretation of the selection criteria so poorly defined and communicated by the administering bodies themselves.”
The commission found that parties acted without bias and stood aside where any conflicts of interest arose.
“We might add that it is clear to us that Mr Peternell cast many aspersions of impropriety without really thinking the matter through and, so it seems to us, for the sole purpose of justifying some or other conspiracy theory against him.
“We do appreciate that many of the issues are emotion-laden and that Mr Peternell must, on occasion, have felt overwhelmed by taking on the establishment, as it were.
“But even making allowance for those considerations, it is clear to us that Mr Peternell allowed his emotions to get the better of him in some instances and clearly overstepped the bounds of reason.”
“We find that no conflicts of interest existed in the selection process, which was conducted independently and honestly. If the selection process is to be faulted at all, it is that the criteria for selection were not adequately defined.”
The committee traversed the actions of some parties within SAEF and SASCOC following the CAS decision in favour of Peternell.
It continued: “In as much as certain of Mr Peternell’s conduct in this matter has caused some disquiet amongst us, the conduct of the SAEF and SASCOC during and after the awards of the Court of Arbitration for Sport is equally disconcerting.”
The committee concluded: “Mr Hart found himself in a position where he had done nothing wrong.
“Yet, by virtue of a shrewd competitor who embraced an opportunity created by the well-intentioned but on occasion inept administrators of the equestrian sport, Mr Hart lost out on his opportunity to participate at the 2012 Olympic Games.
“Mr Hart has our deepest sympathy, and we hope that he might in future have another opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games. At the very least, we trust that this matter will serve to ensure that the correct structures and lines of communication are put in place so that Mr Hart’s ordeal will not be experienced by another rider in the future.”
Hart said of the commission’s findings: “I particularly welcome the concluding remarks of the report, which cite emphatically that I was not at fault in this situation and that Heartbreak Hill (Harry) and I were unjustly denied the opportunity to represent our country at the Olympic Games in 2012.
“Although it is after the fact, they are an important form of vindication for both Harry and myself in that the truth has at last become public record. It is my hope that this will put an end to the pervasive speculation that ensued when my eligibility to compete at the Games was drawn into question.”