Mercury rising: The show must go on in Montreux

The state of Freddie Mercury in Montreux, Switzerland. Photo: Wikipedia
The state of Freddie Mercury in Montreux, Switzerland. © Bernd Brägelmann

Hipsters from the world’s national equestrian federations, about to pack their bags and head for Montreux for the FEI General Assembly, will no doubt be disappointed to have missed the Swiss town’s annual Freddie Mercury Memorial Day.

Montreux celebrates the late and great lead singer of British rock band Queen in the first week in September, with fans flocking to the shores of Lake Geneva to take part in festivities and admire the three-metre tall statue of Mercury on the waterfront.

Delegates to the November 4-7 gathering will instead be left to ponder the mercurial goings-on in recent weeks around the FEI’s troubles with endurance and the need to find a new president in 2014.

The General Assembly programme looks comparatively earnest, it has to be said, with only a handful of issues likely to generate any kind of heat.

It is the discussions in a social setting, over the canapes and a nice glass or two of chablis, that are likely to be the most revealing.

Foremost will surely be talk of potential candidates to replace Princess Haya as FEI president late next year.

The Jordanian princess, married to Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has without doubt been the most hands-on president of the FEI in recent history.

It was Haya who pushed at the start of her presidency, in 2006, for a maximum tenure of two four-year terms for the president, believing that was long enough for anyone in the role.

Haya has been impressive throughout her two terms, but particularly so in the first three years of her second term.

There appeared to be wide support for the rule change that would have allowed her a third term.

Three months ago, the nine regional group chairs of the FEI agreed unanimously to seek a statute change to that effect. That proposal would have gone to a vote before the General Assembly in Montreux.

But late in September Haya announced that 2014 would, indeed, be her final year as president, as required under the constitution.

In explaining her decision, she said she loved her role. “However, I cannot in good conscience put aside my beliefs and the commitment I made seven years ago now that the term limit I supported applies to me.”

Many nations will view her departure as a blow to the FEI’s stature on the global sporting stage. Her high international profile and powerful connections are greatly valued.

Those qualities no doubt played a part in her winning a seat on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which she will relinquish when she steps down. Haya has been a strong advocate for equestrian sport at an Olympic level.

There are no guarantees that the next president of the FEI will be voted on to the IOC. The IOC membership never exceeds 115 members, and no more than 15 of those spots are allocated to senior officials within the international federations of the 26 Olympic disciplines.

Yes, there have been controversies. There was the fiasco over the so-called progressive drugs list that led to an embarrassing backdown by the FEI. There was the six-month ban imposed on her husband in 2009 after his mount, Tahhan, tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol. A trainer admitted using the drug on the horse.

Then there was the embarrassing revelation this year that trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni had used anabolic steroids on a string of racehorses within the sheikh’s Godolphin racing operation in Britain.

Later, in August, authorities were to seize horse drugs linked to the endurance side of the sheikh’s British operation at Moorley Farm in Newmarket. While there was nothing illegal about the drugs – they were all procurable in Britain – authorities were apparently concerned about their importation.

FEI President Princess Haya.
FEI President Princess Haya.

Then, it emerged a shipment of unlicensed veterinary drugs were seized from a Dubai government jet at Stansted airport in Essex on May 3. The drugs were labelled incorrectly as horse tack.

The sheikh has voiced his anger and frustration over the breaches, and has instituted changes in a bid to ensure there are no repeats.

Now, the issues of doping infractions and high fracture rates in endurance horses are making headlines, with the problem centred on Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain. Several national federations in Europe brought the issue to a head.

They have demanded action, and the FEI has begun a process, now uncomfortably in the spotlight after Belgian equestrian official Pierre Arnould voiced his fears for the future of endurance unless the world governing body could rein in the excesses in the Middle East.

Collectively, that’s a whole airliner full of excess baggage for someone in Haya’s position at the helm of the FEI.

On just about every level, Haya has negotiated this minefield pretty well, and the push by the heads of the regional groupings to allow her a third term was a clear enough signal of wide support.

She has driven the Clean Sport initiative and was instrumental in getting key sponsorships from Swiss luxury watchmaker Longine and the Saudi Equestrian Fund.

The Daily Telegraph suggested in a report on September 18 that Haya faced a fight to continue as FEI president over a so-called conflict of interest arising from drugs scandals around her husband’s equine interests.

In reality, had the third term gone to a vote before the General Assembly – the proposal has since been withdrawn – it was likely to get wide support, with only a handful of dissenting nations likely.

So, what of a successor?

It is hard to imagine that national federation delegates would not be on the subject by their third or fourth glass of chablis.

Most will be aware that members of royal families have held the post since the appointment of Prince Bernard, of the Netherlands, in 1954.

Who can say whether another member of a royal family might not emerge from the blue bloods to head the organisation? The FEI is running well and perhaps the organisation could return to a president in more of a figurehead role, as tended to be the case with Haya’s predecessors.

However, the evidence at this stage suggests the presidency may go next year to someone outside royalty for the first time in 60 years.

It seems inconceivable that some discussions have not already taken place behind closed doors. Will the 40-odd European nations look to unite behind one candidate? Could a name or two be quietly discussed in convivial fashion as the cognac comes out for a nightcap?

European? American? Could it be someone already serving on the FEI Bureau or holding senior office in one of the major national federations?

The Montreux gathering is certain to provide the first move in what could prove to be a year-long game of presidential chess.

As for endurance, the Middle Eastern problem is proving to be a real headache for the FEI, which is trumpeting its initiatives to improve matters, but every utterance gives the impression that the organisation is carefully walking over egg shells, trying not to cause offence to anyone, or any federation, especially in the Middle East while Haya is in her final year as president.

Poor Pierre Arnould, from Belgium, articulated a view undoubtedly held by many – that endurance could be in real trouble if it does not sort out its problems promptly, and that the FEI’s response has not been robust enough. “We need practical, impartial law enforcement measures that will cease these scandals immediately and permanently,” he said.

The FEI’s Endurance Strategic Planning Group has been exploring the issues and will present its intermediate findings at a special endurance session in Montreux on November 6. Haya promises the session will be fully interactive so that the group can listen to federations and, where appropriate, integrate that feedback into its recommendations.

The group will complete those recommendations by the end of January 2014, which will be discussed at an endurance conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, next February.

The outcome of discussions at this conference will form part of the group’s final recommendations to the FEI Bureau for what has been referred to as “immediate action”. Agreed measures will be presented at the endurance session of the Sports Forum in April 2014.

Should that all go well, it is possible Haya will leave office with the endurance problem put to bed.

It seems ironic that Haya has had her fair share of heartache from endurance when, in reality, she has had little in the way of hands-on control.

When elected in 2006, she had officially acknowledged a potential conflict of interest and delegated authority to the vice-presidents and executive board to deal with any issues related to endurance that might involve a possible conflict.

Other issues? Delegates must finalise the Olympic and Paralympic qualification path for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero.

The Pan-American countries are likely to have a word or two to say about Olympic qualification.

The push for Paralympic qualification at two events, instead of one, is likely to have cost implications for smaller federations, especially those outside Europe.

Nations may also have something to say about the split proposed among the horses bound for Rio.

Rio, like London, will involve 200 horses. But current proposals involve reducing the number of eventing horses from 75 to 65, and increasing the number of dressage horses from 50 to 60. The current proposal would keep showjumpers at 75.

Eventing numbers would be cut under the proposal by reducing each team from five to four, with three scores to count.

It seems only fair that the last word should go to Freddie Mercury, whose power ballad, We are the Champions, may ultimately provide a fitting epitaph for Haya’s presidency when her term ends in November next year:

” … mistakes,

I’ve made a few,

I’ve had my share of sand

Kicked in my face

But I’ve come through.”


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