A funny thing happened on the way to the Sports Forum

Milton Berle said "no thanks" to a lead role in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum".
Milton Berle said “no thanks” to a lead role in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.

Next week’s FEI Sports Forum and Extraordinary General Assembly in Lausanne promise to be quite a show – a contemporary drama in several acts. Neil Clarkson reports.

Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, had it all: satire, farce, endless puns, and catchy tunes. Its opening run on Broadway in 1962 racked up close to 1000 performances.

Milton Berle passed on filling the lead role of Pseudolus in this Roman-era tale, but the assembled cast still managed to put on quite a show.

The movers and shakers of the FEI are this week on their way to their very own forum and it, too, promises to be quite a show.

Let’s face it. The FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland, could easily have been a dull affair. However, the media is sure to have plenty to fill their notebooks.

The FEI has assembled a stellar cast of equestrian heavyweights and set a script that will have the punters coming back for more.

Delegates from the world’s national federations could have spent the entire forum pondering the jumping event classifaction system, reviewing the sterling work of the FEI footing project team, or considering the online entry system. Each has its very own forum.

Perhaps a headline or two could have been generated from the vaulting round table, or the odd snippet may have emerged from the progress report to be delivered on the upcoming Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, set to be held in Normandy from late August.

Splendid though that may be, all eyes will really be on the endurance round table and the Extraordinary General Assembly set for next Tuesday.

What can we expect?

The endurance round table

The HM King Hussein I Building, FEI headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The HM King Hussein I Building, FEI headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

This session is set down for two hours before lunch. It seems like an extraordinarily short period, given the high-profile nature of the issues that have dogged the sport.

Endurance aficionados will be well versed in the entire drama. It revolves around welfare issues and doping infractions centered on Middle Eastern endurance, in particular the Group VII nations of Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain.

The issue has divided the endurance world, with talk on both sides of the Atlantic of breakaway groups if the FEI does not rein in the welfare problems and deal with what some member nations feel is the lax approach to the rules by some competitors and some officials in the region.

The FEI has been going through a well-publicised process of consultation aimed at rule changes. It clearly hopes that the changes, together with more stringent enforcement of the rules and perhaps some technological innovations, will solve the problems.

Many have their doubts. The Middle East is obviously very fond of its more aggressive endurance desert racing, and there are some who doubt the strategy will succeed.

For some nations, the process has not moved nearly fast enough. The last major round of consultation organised by the Endurance Strategy Planning Group (ESPG) in Lausanne early in February was hardly encouraging, with the Group VII nations failing to show up.

The process has continued, of course, and three weeks ago the latest incarnation of the proposals were released.

The FEI Endurance Committee is meeting before the endurance round table and it’s a safe bet members will be pondering in great detail the 140 recommendations of the ESPG.

It’s entirely possible there will be more refinement as the committee ponders what should be incorporated in the rules of the sport. Many nations are worried they may push ahead with measures that add layers of bureacracy and costs to the sport that would only seem necessary in the countries at the centre of the controversy.

It is entirely possible the committee will divide proposed rule changes into two groups – those directly affecting horse welfare (for which there is scope within the FEI constitution to implement them quickly), and those that relate to the policing and management of events, which are unlikely to enter the rule book until January 1 next year.

There may, of course, be fireworks. It is possible some nations may take the opportunity to grandstand on the issue. However, one wonders whether there is much new to say at this advanced stage.

The ESPG may originally have been viewed as the be-all and end-all solution to the problem. It has become clear that is not the case.

We now have an endurance task force urgently looking at practical measures that can be introduced to make the policing and management of endurance events easier. There are two obvious prongs to this: how officials operate at events, and what viable and affordable technologies are available that could aid them in their duties.

The task force is on a reasonably tight time frame, with the FEI making it clear it would like to see these measures in place for the World Equestrian Games in Normandy late in August. In fact, endurance task force members gather in Lausanne for their first meeting just a day before the Sports Forum.

A blow by blow account of the controversies around this entire endurance process and the issues would be an encyclopaedic undertaking.

At this late stage, the issues are surely pretty straightforward. Rules changes are coming and it seems likely that GPS technology will ultimately play a part in future at top-level endurance events. Race officials who take a lax approach or turn a blind eye are clearly an endangered species.

Each and every nation will ultimately stand in judgment on whether they work, and no amount of bluster or grandstanding during the two hours of the endurance round table is going to make one iota of difference to that.

If the measures don’t work, then a split in the sport becomes more likely.

The Extraordinary General Assembly

FEI President Princess Haya.
FEI President Princess Haya.

The Sports Forum should have had top billing in Lausanne, but that honour really falls to the Extraordinary General Assembly. And extraordinary it is.

The meeting, set for 9am on Tuesday, was organised by the FEI after 100 member-nations backed a call for a special General Assembly to amend the constitution to allow three four-year terms for the president.

Under the current constitution, the president must stand down at the end of two four-year terms, meaning Princess Haya’s time at the helm should end this December at the General Assembly in Dubai.

The eight-year limit was promoted by the princess herself some seven years ago. She expressed the view that eight years was enough for anyone in the role, and she wanted to remove the possibility that presidents might develop a sense of entitlement in the role.

The proposed amendment does not name the princess, of course, but it must be seen for what it is: a far from subtle strategy to try to persuade Princess Haya to change her mind and remain for another four years.

Member nations are effectively hoping that if the option for a third term is available, Haya might be persuaded to stay on.

Could we see some drama? With 100 member-nations pushing for a vote on the issue, it seems likely the constitutional change will receive wide support, although it will require a two-thirds majority to pass.

Some nations are certain to voice opposition, and there is no doubt the outcome will be a pretty accurate barometer on international feeling over the presidency.

Switzerland, for one, has already put up a candidate for president in Pierre Genecand, so it would seem to have nailed its position to the mast.

It’s a curious situation, really. This is all about Princess Haya in one sense, but at the end of the day it is also a straightforward constitutional change that is on the table.

How political some nations will treat the whole affair remains to be seen, but one assumes Genecand will be in attendance to meet representatives of national federations and take full advantage of showing his hand early.

Pierre Genecand
Pierre Genecand

Will the Swiss play it low-key or will we see the emergence of Team Genecand, which would most likely form its nucleus in Europe?

For Haya, she will surely get a clearer picture of how any presidential campaign will likely unfold when nations cast their vote.

Whether Haya may ultimately seek a third term is a story for another day. However, her campaign would certainly benefit from getting some concrete solutions in place as soon as possible to resolve the endurance storm.

However, of equal interest in this general assembly is the potential for a second step.

Should the constitution be changed to allow a third presidential term, member nations will be asked to vote to allow FEI Bureau members to serve three terms, instead of the current maximum of two. It would similarly allow bureau members to serve three terms as technical chairs.

I can see considerable debate around the merits of this proposal.

The logic may well centre on keeping a team together, or strong, capable and experienced members in place, but it does raise the possibility of seeing technical committee chairs serving three terms, while members must stand down for a minimum of two years after serving one term on a committee.

It will be interesting to hear the arguments for and against.

Finally, member nations will look at the merits of forming an Olympic Council, an entirely sensible proposal aimed at promoting the interests of equestrian sport at the highest levels of the Olympic movement. It would be hard to imagine nations viewing this as anything other than a sound idea.

Of course, much of interest will be said over the teacups – or more specifically the official dinner at the newly refurbished Olympic Museum on Monday evening, and the farewell cocktail function at FEI headquarters the following night.

In the interests of frank and meaningful dialogue, might I propose a simple yet elegant cocktail sure to lubricate the conversation? In a symbolic gesture to show that controversy is part of the rich tapestry of life, I’ve opted for something that is stirred rather than shaken.

It is quick to whip up, affordable (to keep the FEI bean counters happy), and comes with a little ginger.

The Horse’s Neck

The Horse's Neck. Photo: Plume.janvier/Wikipedia
The Horse’s Neck. Photo: Plume.janvier/Wikipedia

Pour two ounces of bourbon, brandy or American rye whiskey over ice in a tall glass. Fill with ginger ale (none of that budget stuff, please) and stir gently. Garnish with a long strip of lemon peel. The adventurous can add a dash of Angostura Bitter if desired.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *