Equestrian sport: Keeping a finger in the Olympic pie

© CdnStar
© CdnStar

The Olympic cash pie is a very tasty morsel, indeed. I imagine it to be a dense, rich creation lathered with a decadent chocolate topping and finished with lashings of fruit. A tasty set of Olympic rings in icing would be a nice touch, too.

Who wouldn’t want a slice of that?

The pie, of course, represents the profit generated for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from the Olympics.

Greenwich Park, where equestrian events were held for London 2012. Having horse sports in the cite center is a rare occurrence at the Olympics.
Greenwich Park, where equestrian events were held for London 2012. Having horse sports in the cite center is a rare occurrence at the Olympics.

Hosting the Games may cost nations a bomb, but it comes with much international prestige and puts the country on the global stage for two weeks.

The television rights are enormously lucrative and it should come as no surprise to anyone that the coffers of the IOC get a handsome injection every time the Games are staged – winter or summer.

The IOC likes to share the joy with all the sports that make up the Olympic movement. Once upon a time, the IOC would take one slice of the pie and divide it up evenly among the sports. This was the case up until the mid-1990s, at which point each sport was receiving $US1.5 million.

Not surprisingly, some of the top-tier sports eventually got a little grumpy with this arrangement, feeling they deserved some financial recognition for getting more television viewers and filling more seats at Olympic venues.

And so it came to pass that the IOC took a slice of the pie and then divided it up, with the higher profile sports getting a greater share.

Athletics and swimming were the top tier, with other sports falling into some sort of orderly fashion beneath them across five categories – A to E. This arrangement has lasted some years, and I think it is fair to say the categories have provided some broad insight into how each of the disciplines is viewed within the Olympic movement.

Equestrian sport was nestled in Category C, and I doubt anyone would have too much of a problem with that.

As the new millennium dawned, there remained some disquiet around the way the pie was divided. This concern kept building until 2010, when agreement was reached to review the groupings. It is understood that not all sports entirely welcomed the move.

Around the time of last year’s SportAccord in St Petersburg, Russia, in May, sporting bodies got their first inkling of changes to the way the pie was divided.

I understand the FEI first got wind of the nature of the changes during a presentation to members of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations. It emerged that Olympic officials had revisited the categorisations – and the news was not good for equestrian sport.

Under the plan, gymnastics joined swimming and athletics in category A.

Category B was occupied by basketball, cycling, football, tennis, and volleyball.

The Category C sports were named as archery, badminton, boxing, judo, rowing, shooting, table tennis and weightlifting.

However, equestrian sport was dropped from this category to D, joining canoeing/kayaking, fencing, handball, hockey, sailing, taekwondo, triathlon, and wrestling.

fei-flagCategory E gathered the modern pentathlon, golf and rugby on the bottom rung. This category appears mostly reserved for the demonstration sports that come and go from the Games programme.

Most sports stayed where they were, but equestrian sport, hockey, and handball were among those to suffer a fall in ranking.

One can imagine any sport would be distressed to learn of their fall.

However, it begs two obvious questions which demand an answer: Why are we dropping and what criteria were used to assess the rankings?

It transpires, according to sources, the FEI has asked those very questions, as did hockey, and no doubt all other sporting bodies that found themselves on the slippery slope.

Why, one has to ask, would equestrian sport slide in such fashion after such a successful Games in London?

What we do know is that, in 2010, the Association of Summer Olympic Federations asked the IOC to review the groupings under which the international federations are classified.

This was to be based on data from the London Games, with several sources confirming the following criteria: Television audiences (40 percent), internet page views and social media mentions (20 percent), general public appreciation (15 percent), spectator ticket sales (10 percent), press articles (10 percent), and universality (5 percent).

Was this the sole basis for the new groupings for the purposes of revenue distribution? That is hard to determine.

However, it seems clear that, despite a highly successful London Games for equestrian sport, the numbers did not fall in its favour – at least not in this exercise.

While the downgrading would obviously result in a decline in revenue from the Olympics, of equal concern is the general negative effect of such a downgrade on the wider perception of equestrian sport, especially so among the Olympic family.

You don’t have to be a latter-day genius to realise that the devil is surely in the detail.  For example, where was the raw data obtained and what methods were used to crunch the numbers? Were the numbers weighted in any way? How did the data look across all sports, not just the equestrian disciplines?

This is important on two levels. First, sports are surely entitled to know the evidence upon which they are judged. And, even if individual sports accept even the lowest of rankings, surely they are entitled to know the full details of the parameters upon which they were judged in order to identify their perceived weaknesses and focus on improvement?

The IOC carries on its website a list of about 30 points on which international sporting federations are classified. Sporting federations ignore it at their peril.

Indeed, the FEI is known to benchmark itself against these criteria, and no doubt other sporting federations do the same. What we appear to have with the revamp of categories for revenue distribution is a whole new ball game – a whole new set of criteria.

It would seem, to my reckoning, you could run a model international sporting federation, yet still get crunched down a category.

I understand a lot of work has gone into trying to get to the bottom of this, and it should come as no surprise that the FEI has been pushing hard.

Confused? It seems we have some questions over criteria. We have revenue distribution groupings with questions over what methodology was used and concerns over precisely what they mean in the wider context.

Are they, indeed, solely for the purposes of revenue distribution, or should international federations be reading more into them? It would be tempting to do so, and I think the grounds for concern are real.

The IOC has embarked on a wide-ranging review of the way the Olympics are staged. It seems clear they are aiming at more flexibility around the staging of the Games and the sports involved.

This is great news for disciplines outside the Olympic movement, but those within it have cause to be worried should they end up too close to the bottom rungs of the Olympic ladder.

Just how the IOC proceeds will not be clear until recently appointed committees report back in December.

Win or lose, there seems little doubt that popularity, revenue, and television rights will loom large in the future of all Olympic sports.

It doesn’t take too big a piece of paper to work out that eventing is probably most at risk among the equestrian disciplines. It is costly to stage, has less global reach than the other Olympic equestrian sports, and its television appeal is substantially limited to the cross-country day.

In June of last year, FEI president Princess Haya wrote to all national federations explaining that equestrian sport had dropped a category. She spelt out the FEI’s dissatisfaction.

Most worryingly, it is nearly a year down the track and sources suggest the situation remains murky at best. We’re down a category for revenue distribution, but there are understood to be fears that this may ultimately have wider ramifications.

If the excellent Olympic showing for equestrian sports in London was not enough to ward off a drop in ranking, then what needs to be done?

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro with their gold medal.
Olympic dressage gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. © London 2012

I’m not entirely sure, after all this time, enough information is available to answer that question, but at least we now have the FEI Olympic Council to push the interests of equestrian sports within the Olympic movement.

It looks to be a fraught journey ahead. The IOC has thrown all its rings in the air for its wide-ranging revamp, and the equestrian movement must be prepared to tackle all conceivable challenges.

Some of those questions are straightforward to ask, but not so simple to answer: How can the sport increase Olympic participation? How can it keep costs down? How can the sports increase their television profile and get more mileage on the internet? Every column centimetre in print media is important, too.

I suspect cost is a crucial factor in all this – not only in terms of building venues and a cross-country course, but for individual nations transporting horses and getting horse-rider combinations the preparation they need. There wouldn’t be a national Olympic committee on the planet that thinks getting equestrian competitors to the Games is easy on the wallet.

It is clear that all these things really do count. And we’ve got to do better.

2 thoughts on “Equestrian sport: Keeping a finger in the Olympic pie

  • June 13, 2014 at 3:14 am

    So what is the point or usefulness of HRH being part of the IOC Council if she cannot even protect Equestrian and keep it in Category C after an extremely successful and high-profile 2012 Games where equestrian shone brighter than ever?

    Am still waiting to understand what has been achieved in her 8 years that helps equestrian top sport.

  • June 13, 2014 at 3:23 am

    Equestrian sport had more participant nations than did, for example, diving. Cost has to be a factor. Eventing in particular is difficult to run in some locations because of climate, health hazards and space (though Greenwich showed that space is not quite the limitation previously thought).


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