Twenty years ago, when serving as picture editor for a local newspaper, we ran a front-page picture of students from Christchurch Girls’ High School awaiting the arrival of a dignitary – I think it was New Zealand’s governor-general.
Needless to say, it was a serious occasion and the teenage girls were resplendent in their school uniforms as they stood to attention, forming a line with perfect precision.
Our photographer was shooting this spectacle, taking a picture along the line to show this magnificent show of uniformity, when a lass with an impish sense of humour saw him, leaned forward from the line and gave a flourish of her arm as if to welcome the country’s official representative of the Queen, who was still some minutes away.
It was a magnificent image that deserved its place on the front page.
I wonder to this day whether the girl got into trouble.
Belgian endurance official Pierre Arnould has leaned forward from the precision ranks of the FEI and, if I may continue the school theme a little longer, received a caning from FEI secretary general Ingmar de Vos for his trouble.
It seems he is on report, with de Vos refusing to rule out more consequences for Arnould.
His sin? Arnould voiced, in colourful terms, his fears for the future of the sport of endurance unless the world governing body could rein in the apparent excesses of a clutch of Middle Eastern countries.
The issue is pretty uncomplicated.
Endurance has an excellent track record for safety and drug breaches, dragged down only by a series of doping infractions in recent years arising from horses raced in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain. There have also been welfare concerns around high fracture rates in the region.
Several European federations have been vocal in their criticism of the breaches and have demanded action.
It would seem the FEI has found this all pretty uncomfortable, with its president, Princess Haya, being married to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. In 2009, the sheikh 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, but the skeikh also copped a ban as the rider is ultimately held responsible.
The sheikh and his wider family are major players in the sport of endurance. The sheikh has had troubles in his British thoroughbred and endurance operations, too, with drug use by an errant trainer in several thoroughbreds and the discovery of drugs linked to his endurance operation.
It has to be said that endurance in the Middle East paints an unpleasant picture, with its record laid bare in FEI disciplinary cases.
One could be forgiven, on the evidence, for thinking a permissive attitude existed towards drug use in endurance horses in the region.
It is also understandable that the FEI feels the need to tread with care, but it seems that it has taken diplomacy around the issue to uncomfortable extremes.
For example, the FEI announced plans in June for a round-table discussion to “look into areas of concerns within the sport of endurance”.
Its press release was 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 only hint that this may have something to do with the Middle East was the mention that the United Arab Emirates was invited.
Arnould’s views, expressed in The Telegraph in a piece written by Pippa Cuckson, would certainly be uncomfortable for the FEI, and they were articulated by Arnould with some passion: “The scandals have continued unabated, the press is going wild, horses die, fractures are increasing – and next week the winter season begins in the Middle East.”
He continued: “Everything would be idyllic but for three federations who cast shame on the sport.”
Arnould was clearly unimpressed by the FEI’s response to the problem to date, saying: “While the FEI endurance committee, federations, breeders and riders have alerted the FEI board for years to these unacceptable practices, the FEI’s only response is to create a strategic group with the task of studying the evolution of endurance for the next 10 years.
“We need practical, impartial law enforcement measures that will cease these scandals immediately and permanently.”
The response by de Vos, a fellow Belgian who was once secretary-general of the Belgian national federation, demonstrates considerable displeasure.
“I do not accept the statement made public by Pierre Arnould,” de Vos said, asserting that he had made allegations that were unsubstantiated. In doing so, Arnould had brought the sport and the FEI into disrepute, de Vos claimed.
Arnould, he said, was in trouble because he spoke as a member of the FEI Endurance Committee without either mandate or consultation.
“Mr Arnould signed a non-disclosure document and a declaration agreeing to support and actively endorse FEI policies. As an individual Pierre Arnould can speak his mind, but he cannot speak on behalf of an FEI Committee without consulting its chair and his fellow members.
“This is not just a legal issue. His actions show a total lack of respect for his colleagues on the committee, but also for other volunteers within our organisation. Mr Arnould is in clear breach of this signed agreement and his behaviour is totally unacceptable.”
I suspect de Vos may be over-reaching here. Yes, Arnould is the Belgian national coach and a member of the FEI’s endurance committee, and was described as such in the report in The Telegraph.
However, Arnould has no control over what description The Telegraph chooses to give him.
The assertion by de Vos that Arnould’s remarks had brought the sport and the FEI into disrepute could take some defending, too.
Yes, the FEI’s moves to date have not satisfied Arnould, but if the sport of endurance has a reputational problem, it is certainly not through anything Arnould has done.
The release by de Vos refers to addressing the “issues in endurance”, but makes no reference to the Middle East.
Arnould has stepped out of the ranks and is in trouble as a consequence.
His expressed opinions may well prove to have wide support.
In this particular case, unlike the schoolgirl of 20 years ago, I need have no fear of never learning what fate will befall him.
The FEI, it seems, is out to make Arnould part of the problem. He should be part of the solution.