Baku or bust: Deciding vote looms for five men chasing the FEI presidency

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Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, is the lowest lying capital city in the world, built some 28 metres below sea level.

It is a city with a rich past and can rightly be considered a major gateway between the East and the West.

pierre-genecand
Pierre Genecand

It is here, in a few days, that delegates from the 130 member nations of the FEI will decide who will be president of the world governing body for the next four years.

The Azerbaijan presidential vote marks a gateway of sorts for the FEI. It will mark the end of a 60-year unbroken run in which a member of a royal family has been at the helm of the organisation.

The departure of Princess Haya after eight years has created a race for the presidency which is unprecedented in the organisation’s history.

Six European men were nominated by their respective national federations for the role.

For most of the FEI’s history, it never even had a contest for the presidency. Indeed, the two terms won by Princess Haya mark the only occasions that the presidency has been contested.

The number of candidates would have surprised many, I suspect, including the FEI.

One has to wonder whether it would have played out another way had circumstances unfolded differently.

Princess Haya announced in mid-August that she would not be seeking a third term, leaving little more than two weeks before the closing of nominations.

Her decision took everyone by surprise and most nations would not have even contemplated putting forward a candidate. Normally, in such circumstances, the deadline for nominations would perhaps have been extended, but this would not have been fair to the Swiss businessman and entrepreneur Pierre Genecand, who had already thrown his hat in the ring.

In any event, nominations closed on September 1 and five other European men joined Genecand in the race: Ulf Helgstrand, of Denmark; John McEwen, of Britain; Javier Revuelta del Peral, of Spain; Pierre Durand, of France; and Ingmar De Vos, of Belgium.

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.

Had there been more time, would we have seen the 43 nations of the European Equestrian Federation endorse a candidate?

We will never know, but the fact we ended up with six European men seeking the role is a pretty clear indication of the time squeeze involved, in my view. It must be remembered that most federations were busy at the time in the leadup to the World Equestrian Games in France.

I must confess my surprise that we still have five candidates in the race. I predicted  in September that there would be withdrawals.

In the event, only one candidate, Revuelta, has withdrawn from the race, articulating several concerns over the electoral process. He raised the prospect of the process being challenged through the FEI Tribunal or the courts, which he acknowledged would be damaging to the reputation of horse sport. He decided instead to withdraw.

The fact that five remain in the race suggests that each of them got enough positive feedback from national federations to encourage them to stay in the contest.

John McEwen
John McEwen

The campaign has not been one of fire and brimstone, but each candidate signalled the need for important changes, and were surprisingly unified about where they needed to be made.

All five offered an especially media-savvy take on the whole horse sport question, in my view.

They effectively suggested there was a need for changes  in at least some of the disciplines if the sports were to flourish. They talked in general terms of the need to grow the fan base, boost media exposure, ensure that the sports were packaged in a media friendly way, and that they were easily understandble.

There seemed to be consensus, too, on shortcomings around scheduling of some major events, with a clear indication that they needed tweaking.

Bubbling away in the background has been the issue of whether the president should be paid. De Vos raised the question and is firmly of the view that the role should be paid. The response from the other candidates was mixed, ranging from opposition to conditional support.

Undoubtedly, the candidates will have been talking with national federations in a bid to shore up support, and time has been set aside in Baku for national federation representatives to meet them and hear what they have to say.

It would be a mistake to consider the five candidates a homogenous bunch, although they certainly share a solid and enduring commitment to horse sport.

Pierre Durand
Pierre Durand

The Swiss nominee, Genecand, is a 64-year-old businessman, banker and insurance broker by profession. He declared his interest in the presidency months before any of the others.

He has 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.

Helgstrand, 63, is president of the Danish Equestrian Federation and vice-president of the European Equestrian Federation. He 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.

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.

FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos
Ingmar De Vos.

He took on responsibility for endurance in June, which most would agree is no easy ride.

The Frenchman Durand is a gold-medal-winning Olympic showjumper who rode Jappeloup at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Jappeloup threw Durand into a jump and fled the ring.

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

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.

De Vos, 51, the Belgium nominee, is currently serving as FEI secretary general. 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.

Javier Revuelta del Peral
Javier Revuelta del Peral

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.

So, just as Baku crosses the divide between East and West, the FEI finds itself at a crossroads of sort.

Will the high profile of De Vos in the role of secretary general prove to be the winning of the race? Will the fantastic Olympic backstory of Durand sway enough nations to give him the presidency? Will the diplomatic McEwen’s strong performance in handling the hot potatoto of endurance prove a deciding factor? Could Helgstrand’s strong profile in Europe do the trick? Could Genecand sway nations with his very pragmatic vision of the way forward for horse sport?

Given that the president effectively gets to chose his or her own vice-presidents, could we see some deals?

That would seem entirely possible.

The whole presidential question certainly adds a fascinating layer of intrigue to the General Assembly.

Who will win? It’s Baku or bust for the five candidates. The answer will be known on Sunday.

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