The FEI presidency: Let the race begin



The FEI has emerged from the mud-plug of the World Equestrian Games into a race for the presidency between six European candidates. Neil Clarkson looks at how the race might unfold, and suspects there may be an early frontrunner.

Many years ago, I slapped down a few dollars on my one and only bet on a racehorse.

It was only five dollars and my reasons were entirely selfish. I had hoped to win a few dollars, retire from race betting, and genuinely claim for the rest of my days that I had made money betting on horses.

Suffice to say that my short betting career was not kind to me. I lost my five dollars and the dream was over.

I make this confession as a matter of full disclosure, before getting down to the business of looking at the six-horse race for the presidency of the FEI. The evidence is clear that picking winners is not my strong point.

Princess Haya: Her departure in December has set up an intriguing contest for the presidency.
Princess Haya: Her departure in December has set up an intriguing contest for the presidency.

However, I think we can learn a lot by looking over the form guide and assessing how this race is likely to play out.

The incumbent, Princess Haya, announced in mid-August that she would not be seeking a third four-year term as president. The decision surprised many national federations, who thought her re-election after eight years in the role would be little more than a formality at the General Assembly set down for Baku, Azerbaijan, in mid-December.

Her only challenger at the time of her announcement was a Swiss businessman and entrepreneur, Pierre Genecand. Genecand’s campaign to that point had understandably been low key, given that the election was still more than four months away.

The announcement by the princess left little more than two weeks before the September 1 deadline set by the FEI Bureau for nominations. National federations were undoubtedly focused on the fast-approaching start of the World Equestrian Games, so it would be fair to say the whole process of nominations ultimately unfolded with an unseemly degree of haste.

It might have been possible for the FEI Bureau to extend the deadline, but that would hardly have seemed fair to Genecand, who had declared his formal interest in the role months before.

In any event, nominations closed and the FEI found itself with six nominations to replace Princess Haya.

Joining Genecand were Ulf Helgstrand, of Denmark; John McEwen, of Britain; Javier Revuelta del Peral, of Spain; Pierre Durand, of France; and Ingmar De Vos, of Belgium.

That’s six European males.

FEI Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
FEI Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

That in itself is interesting. No-one can deny that Europe has provided considerable moral leadership in horse sport, especially in the face of controversies in the last two years.

The crucial element for any European candidate is to show the rest of the world that they have a genuine global view of horse sport and a desire to continue to develop the sport outside its traditional powerhouses.

A crucial issue with the six candidates centres around the simple question of unity. If Europe cannot show itself to be united behind one candidate, then why should they expect the rest of the world to do so?

My initial thought on a six-man race was that this had the potential to be fought out on policy and vision. The man who provided the best strategies for the future of horse sport would win through.

I think, in hindsight, that scenario is unlikely.

Races that have big fields inevitably have scratchings, and I think we will see that in this contest.

There was a great deal of time pressure around nominations and I think at least some of the candidates and their supporting federations would have taken the view that they are perhaps best to enter the contest and then assess the lie of the land.

The World Equestrian Games is behind us and thoughts will now be turning to the General Assembly.

The candidates would have had a chance to network during WEG and obtain important feedback on just how their individual nominations were viewed by other federations. I have no doubt that further communications will have given each of them a pretty good idea of where they stand.

The options from here are either to withdraw (with the option, should they choose, of endorsing one of the other candidates) or start to lay out their policy platforms and get on with the campaign.

I am fairly confident there will be withdrawals, which we are likely to see over the next month. I would be surprised if national federations go to Baku with more than two or three candidates left in the race.

So, while stressing again that I am no good at picking winners, let’s see how things are shaping up, largely in the absence of policies or manifestos.

We’ll tackle the candidates in the order in which their formal nominations were received by the FEI, along with a little of the biographical information supplied at the time the six were confirmed.

Pierre Genecand

Pierre Genecand
Pierre Genecand

Genecand, 64, is a businessman, banker and insurance broker by profession. He was nominated by the Swiss Federation and declared his interest in the presidency months before any of the other candidates. Before Princess Haya’s withdrawal, it was odds-on that he would have been the only candidate running against her.

He served as president of the Geneva International Horse Show from 1989 to 2003. He has been a member of the board of the World Cup of Horsemanship, the Alliance of Jumping Organisers, and the Committee of Swiss Top Sports. He is the current president of the Polo Club Gstaad and the Hublot Polo Gold Club.

He spends most of his time between Switzerland, Uruguay and Argentina, where he breeds horses.

In July, he launched a website in support of his presidential bid. He said at the start of his official campaign: “I am deeply convinced that I could bring a renewed energy to the FEI in many aspects, be it in sports, commercial matters or media promotion, not to mention the welfare of the horse.”

His website promotes the slogan “Keep calm and vote for PEG”, and lays out his broad vision.

Genecand spoke to members of the Alliance of Equestrian Journalists, which held its annual meeting during WEG. He told them he had an extensive network of decision-makers worldwide and that he was used to dealing with and negotiating with international companies. He said he had managed to find and maintain important sponsors for all the events and entities for which he had worked.

Genecand’s campaign is obviously far more advanced than any of the other candidates, but would he have the profile to pull off a win? I can’t help but think that national federations might prefer candidates they’ve seen a little more often around the FEI traps.

He was certainly bold to declare his candidacy early and was clearly intending to campaign all the way to Baku in a race that he was almost certain to lose against Princess Haya. It cannot be denied that he had the courage of his convictions and a good measure of tenacity.

My personal view is that Genecand is one of those who will see it out to the end.

Ulf Helgstrand

Ulf Helgstrand is president of the Danish Equestrian Federation and vice-president of the European Equestrian Federation.
Ulf Helgstrand

Helgstrand, 63, is a medical doctor and a professor of vascular surgery. He has served as president of the Danish Equestrian Federation since 2003.

He was a board member and vice-president of the Danish Warmblood Association for 10 years and currently serves as vice-president and a charter member of the European Equestrian Federation. Helgstrand, nominated by his home federation, is a former dressage rider and has run a stud with several approved dressage stallions since 1991.

Helgstrand is said to be a charismatic individual and is not afraid to state his mind on the issues. He is known in FEI circles. He would have a reasonably good profile among European federations, perhaps less so further afield.

The problem for a man like Helgstrand will be how he could get his nose in front in this contest. And herein lies the problem for any contest fought out between six Europeans. What are their key points of difference?

John McEwen

John McEwen
John McEwen

McEwen, the 69-year-old British nomination, is a veterinarian with wide international experience. He served as a vet to the British showjumping and dressage teams until the London 2012 Olympic Games. He was vice-chairman of the FEI Veterinary Committee from 1999 to 2003 and has been its chairman since 2006.

He currently chairs the FEI Prohibited Substances List and Laboratory Groups. McEwen has served on an advisory panel for World Horse Welfare for more than 15 years. He represents the FEI at the World Organisation for Animal Health, specialising in horse transport issues and on the International Sports Horse Federation. McEwen was appointed FEI 1st vice-president in 2010.

He enjoys a good profile among national federations and the FEI, which would be of considerable value in the presidential race. His profile grew considerably this year when he took on responsibility for endurance in June.

His diplomatic skills are well known – pretty much an essential tool for negotiating through the minefield that has been endurance.

McEwen will be helped by his profile, but he faces exactly the same dilemma as any other European candidates. European federations comprise 43 of the FEI’s 130 member states, so even if Europe could unite behind just one candidate, they would still need reasonable support from outside the region.

I think McEwen, like the other candidates, will be on the phone and looking at numbers. How they fall may well dictate whether he presses on to Baku.

Regardless of whether he has the numbers, he has served splendidly in the vice-presidency.

Javier Revuelta del Peral

Revuelta del Peral
Revuelta del Peral

The 57-year-old is a lawyer and attorney at law for the Spanish Government. He has held senior management positions at various Spanish and international companies in the telecommunications, media, food, financial, and renewable energy industries.

He has competed nationally and internationally in eventing and jumping. He participated in the eventing competition in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, was a member of the Spanish eventing team at the FEI World Equestrian Games in 1994, and at the FEI European Championships the following year.

Since 2005, he has served as the chairman of the Spanish Equestrian Federation and is a member of the Spanish Olympic Committee. He breeds and owns racehorses.

I wonder how well the Spanish nominee is known outside Europe? Is he well enough known to carry off a win? I don’t believe he is a regular at FEI meetings, so he may ultimately have a profile issue in his bid for the presidency. If he is to emerge victorious, he will have to do so on a motivating vision for the future of global horse sport. He, like the others, will be looking closely at the numbers.

Pierre Durand

Pierre Durand and Jappeluop at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. © FEI
Pierre Durand and Jappeluop at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. © FEI

I’ve always been of a the view that it helps if someone makes an uplifting movie about your life – or at least some aspect of it.

Durand jumped the pocket-rocket gelding named Jappeloup at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Jappeloup may have been small, but he had exceptional jumping ability. However, he threw Durand into a jump at the ’84 Games and fled the ring.

The Frenchman persevered and he returned to the Olympics in 1988 at Seoul, where he and 13-year-old Jappeloup jumped their way to the gold medal.

It’s inspiring stuff and the movie Jappeloup, directed by Christian Duguay, was released in 2013.

Durand, 59, was also European Jumping champion in 1987. He won other international and national titles. He was president of the French Equestrian Federation from 1993 to 1998. He has held various executive positions in the media industry and is currently chairman of the board of directors of the French National Institute for Sport, Expertise, and Performance.

He holds a degree in business law, and is a wine grower.

It’s a great back-story and Durand has the kind of credentials that might ultimately put him in the frame for a seat on the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Princess Haya will relinquish her seat on the IOC when she steps down in December and there are no guarantees her replacement will get the same opportunity.

Durand’s story may be well known, but it is profile among FEI member nations that will prove decisive in this race. A gold medal has got to help, but the French nominee will have to do the numbers just like everyone else.

Ingmar De Vos

FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos
Ingmar De Vos.

It struck me as interesting that De Vos was the last candidate to declare his nomination, in this case for the Belgian federation.

The 51-year-old’s biggest advantage is profile. As FEI secretary general, he is well known to all national federations. He is very much a known quantity.

He would have quite easily been able to get a cursory gauge of support among at least some of the federations, and one suspects he was sufficiently buoyed by the feedback to put in his nomination.

There is a persistent rumour that De Vos may seek to combine the responsibilities of the presidency – an unpaid role – along with his paid role as secretary general. It would seem that the FEI statutes do not rule out such a scenario.

If true, De Vos would need to make his intentions plain in the lead-up to the election, so that national federations were clear on what was proposed.

It’s an interesting concept, and one that I imagine would have been sounded out with at least some national federations.

The scenario – and I stress again it is nothing more than rumour – would be the equivalent of a company chief executive also taking on responsibility as chairman or president of the board. It is not unprecedented, at least in a business sense.

I suspect that De Vos would garner a considerable level of support, given his high profile among national federations around the globe.  They know exactly how De Vos is to deal with. He has, by all accounts, always been accessible and helpful, and has proved by his deeds to be interested in supporting the global reach of horse sport.

In my view, De Vos is unquestionably a front runner. Should the proposal to combine the two roles ultimately emerge, it will only do so once there are clear signs it will fly with a majority of national federations.

Could De Vos make it on to the IOC? One would hope that as FEI Secretary-General he has enjoyed enough of a profile to at least get him in the frame.

His pedigree? He holds degrees in political science, business administration and international and European law. He started his career as an adviser to the Belgian Senate.

He joined the Belgian Equestrian Federation as managing director in 1990, and held the additional role of secretary general from 1997 to 2011.

He was secretary general of the European Equestrian Federation from 2010, the year the organisation was formed, until May 2011, when he became FEI secretary general..

During his time at the Belgian National Federation, De Vos was chef de mission for the Belgian equestrian team at all FEI World Equestrian Games from 1990 to 2010 and at several Olympic Games.

*   *   *   *   *

Of course, all of this rather ignores what kind of vision each of the candidates might offer for the future of the FEI and of horse sport.

It would be sad if the race descended into one decided only on the basis of profile and familiarity.

© FEI/Action Images/Steven Paston
© FEI/Action Images/Steven Paston

It has to be said that the role of FEI president would hardly be a laugh a minute. It would unquestionably be an honour to serve in such a role, but it comes with a great deal of scrutiny and on some levels it is highly charged politically.

My gut feeling is that, in a field of six Europeans, De Vos would hold the most trump cards. He would be viewed as an approachable, steady hand, and is well-known among the delegates who will be voting.

It is possible that the dynamics of the election might change with withdrawals, and it is equally possible there may be push-back if the dual-role rumour proves true, but even then De Vos would still have the option to pursue the presidency and relinquish the role of secretary general.

You may have gathered I’m not much of a betting man, so I’m not about to splash out at the local bookmakers and put down another $5 on the outcome – although it would be nice to be able to boast that I’ve never been wrong in picking the winner of an FEI presidential election.

In reality, all six candidates are winners. They each believe they can make a difference for horse sport, and for that they should be congratulated.

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