People do not need to be rocket scientists to realise how easily a sport’s reputation can be damaged by drug scandals.
One only has to look at cycling to see how repeated and high-profile drug infractions can trash a reputation. Once lost, recovering that reputation can be a long and difficult process. The commercial damage can also be considerable, as sponsors tend to see little value in supporting a tarnished sport.
The sport of endurance is facing just such an uncomfortable truth: that if it does not start to make serious inroads into drug infractions in the Middle East, the sport’s reputation could well sustain lasting damage.
What’s more, several national federations have been airing their concerns to the FEI over the drug issues, with one European national federation even raising the spectre of a breakaway group to distance the wider sport from the ongoing problems.
For the last decade, endurance has been the fastest-growing FEI discipline in terms of the number of FEI events and FEI riders and horses. A couple of years ago it surpassed dressage as the second-largest FEI discipline and there has even been talk of the FEI trying to gain Olympic status for endurance.
But the disciplinary decisions from the FEI over the last eight years provide a sorry litany of drug infractions in endurance, with a solid majority originating from the Middle East. It has been a blight on the growing status of the sport.
The figures suggest that endurance would actually have a cleaner slate than dressage, had it not been for the Middle East’s sorry record.
Despite the tribunal decisions, endurance in the region has apparently failed to lift its act and, to add even more discomfort to the situation, several horses are linked to the stables of the wider Maktoum family.
The FEI is now taking a different approach, with FEI President Princess Haya, whose husband is Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ordering a round-table discussion about “areas of concern” within the sport of endurance.
If one wonders about the degree of sensitivity around the subject, the press release put out by the FEI about the meeting is proof enough.
It is bordering on cryptic, heralding the planned “open discussion” about the situation to, in the words of Haya, “create a better understanding of the specific problem areas within the sport and to receive eventual recommendations about potential further steps that can be undertaken”.
The planned meeting is clearly a response to complaints from several European national federations over doping and horse welfare issues in endurance in Middle Eastern nations.
Haya has asked British Equestrian Federation secretary general Andrew Finding, a board member of the European Equestrian Federation, to chair the round-table session.
The FEI has invited representatives from the Swiss and United Arab Emirates national federations, and the European Equestrian Federation, to attend the round-table discussion, which will be held at FEI headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, at a date to be confirmed.
Finding, well known for his diplomacy, will have to use all those skills in trying to make the meeting a productive one.
The Swiss Equestrian Federation is understood to have led the charge on the issue over infractions in the Middle East.
It wrote to FEI secretary general Ingmar de Vos late in March on the Middle East issue.
Its president, Charles Trolliet, and a board member, Peter Christen, laid out the federation’s concerns in a three-page letter, saying they were writing on behalf of worried riders, trainers and officials, as well as the public, media, and animal protection groups.
The pair said the Swiss federation could not accept the situation any longer, citing animal welfare concerns and the fairness of competitions.
The letter discussed drug concerns and “tremendous” fracture rates.
It noted that, from 2010 to 2012, 41 endurance horses were found to be positive for banned substances.
By comparison, the discipline of jumping, which had 31,064 registered horses – more than three times the number registered for endurance – recorded 19 infringements in the same period.
Notably, the letter said, 82.9 per cent of the cases in endurance originated from the FEI’s zone VII – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan.
The letter asserted that such breaches indicated “a clear disrespect of certain riders, trainers and veterinarians concerning the welfare of horses in sport and the FEI code of conduct”.
The federation called on the FEI to take immediate measures to increase medication controls, especially in nations known to have a high frequency of positive test results.
It suggested a system be introduced allowing for the temporary exclusion of nations with a poor doping record.
“This critical situation … is of the highest potential explosive relevance,” the letter said, “putting at risk the image of all other FEI equestrian disciplines.”
The Swiss raised the prospect of an international movement of riders, trainers and officials being created who were no longer willing to accept the situation.
The French federation had written to the FEI about the welfare issue, in rather briefer terms, in October last year.
National sports director Pascal Dubois suggested if the issue was not addressed, it threatened to tarnish the reputation of endurance.
It is understood that Belgian officials have also complained.
The whole issue must be uncomfortable for Haya.
Her husband recently criminalized the use of anabolic steroids in racehorses in Dubai, following embarrassing revelations of the use of banned drugs in more than a dozen horses at his Godolphin thoroughbred racing enterprise in Britain by trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni. The sheikh’s remarks clearly indicated his anger over the breaches in Britain.
The sheikh’s love of horses is well known, but he is a busy man, and understandably not hands-on in the care of his horses.
He pays people to prepare his racing and endurance horses, and in 2009 received a six-month ban when his endurance mount, Tahhan, tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol.
Trainer Abdullah bin Huzaim, who admitted giving the horse drugs before the desert races at Bahrain and Dubai, was handed a one-year ban.
Under FEI rules, the person riding the horse in an event is responsible for any drug breaches, although other support personnel may also be held accountable if circumstances dictate.
Endurance in the Middle East paints an arguably ugly picture, with a record laid out in FEI disciplinary cases. Readers could therefore be forgiven for thinking a permissive attitude exists towards drug use in endurance horses in the region.
The incidence of horse fractures is just as alarming, and potentially just as damaging.
One can only imagine how difficult the round-table meeting could prove to be.
The FEI has made much of its Clean Sport initiative in recent years.
Diplomacy will go only so far. The FEI needs to draw a line in the desert sand over this issue, or risk long-term damage to the reputation of endurance.