Enormous show budgets worry FEI presidential candidate

Ulf Helgstrand is president of the Danish Equestrian Federation and vice-president of the European Equestrian Federation.
Ulf Helgstrand, who is standing for the FEI presidency, heads the Danish Equestrian Federation.

The Danish candidate for the FEI presidency says the costs in staging major shows are becoming prohibitive, suggesting the issue needs to be tackled.

Ulf Helgstrand, 63, also suggests that equestrian sport needs to work to protect the Olympic status of dressage, showjumping and eventing.

Helgstrand, who is president of the Danish Equestrian Federation, is one of five European candidates seeking the presidency of the world governing body.

National federations will decide the new president during the FEI General Assembly in Baku, Azerbaijan, in mid-December, at which time Princess Haya will step down after eight years in the role.

“We are a sport with big costs, not only in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but also in the eyes of people in general,” said Helgstrand, a doctor and professor of vascular surgery.

Some viewed equestrianism as a sport only for the rich, he said, but that was not necessarily the case for those riding for pleasure or at national club level.

It was from the national clubs that riders entered the top tier, he said.

It would be fatal for equestrian sport if the FEI did not  focus on this enormous part of the competitive sphere, he suggested.

“We have to challenge costs,” said Helgstrand, saying it was necessary in order give more national federations the ability to host big series and championships.

“A budget for a big show has reached enormous amounts,” he said.

“Only a few national federations are financially able to bid on large series and championships and that is a shame.

“One way to break this pattern is to create a kind of FEI foundation which could support new hosting national federations.”

This, he said, would hasten globalisation in horse sport.

He talked of the World Equestrian Games in Normandy this year, saying the distances between the venues for disciplines were long, which affected the synergy of the event.

“Maybe we should try and split the championships in order to make it more attractive for national federations to bid.

“Solidarity programs, where large and medium national federations support smaller nations, are also a way for smaller nations to host larger events with only a few disciplines.”

Helgstrand said equestrian sports had been part of the Olympic games since 1912.

“However, it is not given that we will be part of it in the future.

“We are threatened by upcoming sports,” he said, stressing that the total number of athletes attending Games would not increase.

“Therefore we have to continue globalization of the sport – not only to please the IOC but for the development of our sport.

“We have to consider how we make our sport easier to understand for the public in general and I believe that this will make equestrian sport stronger in the eyes of the IOC.”

Helgstrand, who released his manifesto this week and earlier produced what he called a letter of motivation, spoke of the importance of clean sport and horse welfare.

Both, he said, were required for the survival of equestrian sport at a national and international level.

Equestrian sport needed to take criticism seriously, face it and seek dialogue, “even if we feel that the criticism is unfair”.

“Criticism never keeps silent in the grave,” he said, adding that the organisation needed to be proactive through the media instead of defensive.

“The sport will not survive if we ignore media [criticism], no matter if we think they are right or wrong.”

It was important, he said, to understand that there were many different cultures across the globe involved in horse sport.

“An issue in Asia might not be an issue in America. Therefore, it is important that we seek resolution of internal criticism through dialogue inside our organization instead of declaring each other as criminals if we do not fit into a certain culture, or discussing [it] in the media. This only hurts our sport and unity.

“We also have a responsibility to protect our athletes as long as they are acting according to the rules, instead of making them criminals to clean ourselves.”

Helgstrand suggested there was a need to engage with the relevant breed associations, joking that failure to do so could see competitors riding donkeys in the future.

“Ninety percent of the horses in the Olympic disciplines are bred in Europe.

“The number of foals born in Europe has over the last five years decreased 40 to 50 percent compared to the numbers born in 2008.

“As we know, it takes 8-10 years from foaling to get an educated horse. You do not have to be a professor of mathematics to realise that the lack of horses will soon be a reality if we just sit back and wait for better times to come.”

The FEI had a responsibility to take good care of its products and brands, he said.

“One of the best products of the FEI, the Furusiyya Nations Cup Jumping, should be the first priority to our athletes, compared to events such as the Global Champions Tour and prize money. But, unfortunately, this is not always the case.”

Priorities could be tiered by offering fewer ranking points for “paid” sport, he suggested.

“And we also have to improve the concept of the Nations Cup in order to achieve this.”

The married father of three spoke also of the need to “look at the sport from above” in a global and regional context.

“I have seen so many examples during many years that representatives have paid more attention to what was best for his or her national federation instead of the best for the organisation as such.

“This attitude will not contribute to the development of our sport.

“I do not believe that such priorities will benefit equestrian sport and I will work for an FEI that thinks and act as one.”

Helgstrand said that, as president of the Danish federation for more than a decade, he believed he was still able to distinguish between what were national and international interests.

“I believe I know the sport, both on a national and international level, as well as the breeding of sporthorses.

“I feel that I am able to contribute to the challenges we have in the equestrian sport,” he said, explaining that he was motivated by his passion for the sport.

Helgstrand expressed his dismay over the unprecedented number of candidates seeking the presidency.

“When I was asked to stand as a candidate there was only one official candidate,” he said.

Six candidates had come forward by the close of nominations, with one having dropped out since.

“Not in my wildest imagination could I have imagined that the secretary general of the FEI would run for president,” he said of the bid by Belgium candidate Ingmar De Vos.

Helgstrand said one of the conditions of his candidacy was obtaining an assurance from De Vos that the secretary general would stay on in the role if he (Helgstrand) was elected.

He said he feared that the number of candidates ran the risk of leaving deep scars by splitting more than uniting the global goals for equestrian sport.

“This hurts,” he said, saying he had worked hard for more than a decade to unite the sport, not only in Europe but worldwide. “I want to make a difference.”

Helgstrand is a former board member and vice-president of Danish Warmblood Association.

He has been deputy chairman of of FEI Group II since 2007, and vice president of the European Equestrian Federation since 2010.

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