Why the need for change? Eventers urge caution over FEI reform proposals

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Bruce Haskell, pictured on Kiwi Smog at Badminton.
Bruce Haskell, pictured on Kiwi Smog at Badminton.

Eventing riders have questioned why the discipline faces radical reform proposals, as delegates to the FEI’s annual Sports Forum gather in Switzerland to discuss the future shape of equestrian sport.

The FEI is considering a list of reform options across the key equestrian disciplines as the world governing body looks attuned to the International Olympic Committee’s 2020 agenda – the most radical shake-up in the Games’ history.

The IOC has introduced more flexibility to the Olympic programme, while at the same time placing strict caps on athlete numbers. This essentially means that less popular events at the Games may not be guaranteed a permanent place in the future, and could ultimately be threatened by up-and-coming sports.

Eventing is generally considered the most vulnerable of the Olympic equestrian disciplines, given the cost of staging the event and the comparatively few nations that compete at the highest level.

The International Eventing Riders Association has responded to the proposals that will go before the FEI Sports Forum, which begins in Lausanne on Monday.

“What is unclear is why there is significant reason to change the nature of the sport globally in order to meet the needs of the IOC,” said its president, Bruce Haskell, a New Zealand event rider based in Britain.

Haskell said the Eventing document to be considered by the forum was good because it sparked interest and discussion about the future of the sport, not because of the soundness and logic of some of the suggestions.

He said the association applauded the FEI Eventing Committee for being brave enough to recognise the threats ahead for the sport and putting together some ideas.

“The ideas may be controversial, but it is a courageous starting document that has kick-started the slow-moving and conservative world of Eventing.

“The document presents many radical changes and has massive implications for the future of Eventing. However, the one thing this document lacks is clear evidence of why there is a need to change.

“In an age where the catchphrases of ‘being open and transparent’ are used on a daily basis, why is that same philosophy not displayed here?

“If the IOC wants specific changes, what are they? What is the time frame and what resources are being referenced? Most importantly where is the empirical evidence to support the need for change?”

Haskell said the focus needed to be on the format and structure required in the discipline to stay an Olympic sport.

“We must stay an Olympic sport,” he said.

“The aim should be for the Olympic format to remain elite. Olympic Eventing must reflect excellence and be the pinnacle of our sport.”

Some simple conclusions from the document can be drawn, he said. “It is pointless pursuing any format change that: increases cost to the host nation, reduces the level of the championship, exposes the high-risk nature of our sport or does not allow for developing nations to enter and compete.

“We also have to retain the team and individual competitions.”

But he continued: “What is unclear is why there is significant reason to change the nature of the sport globally in order to meet the needs of the IOC.

“The IOC strategy for funding from advertising is targeted towards fast-moving consumer goods. That isn’t eventing.

“We know our loyal demographic; we are luxury cars and champagne, not runabouts and cola.

“If we don’t fit the market the IOC is appealing to, then isn’t it the job of the FEI to sell our strengths and spending power back to the IOC? Make their advertisers see the value of our stakeholders and their high disposable income.

“Our difference should be our strength and promoted as such.”

Haskell said the association welcomed the talk of “modernisation” presented in the document.

Modernisation involved presentation of the sport, editing, camera angles, broadcast mediums, engagement of social media channels, interaction with sponsors, background stories, fan zones and clothing.

Unfortunately, he said, the FEI document confused “changing our sport” with “modernising” it, he said.

“Change the presentation of our sport, don’t change our sport.”

“We have room to move and change. With the exception of dressage being first in the order, we can put cross country last and harness the excitement and spectacle that provides.”

Haskell said it was a brilliant notion to increase the number of participating nations at the Olympics. “But those athlete combinations must be truly worthy of competing, not just participating, at the elite level of the sport.

“The ‘legacy’ of Olympic Eventing should be to develop plans, over a realistic time frame, to help the emerging nations meet the required elite standard.”

On safety, Haskell said it was negligent of the FEI not to enforce higher standards of safety equipment.

“There are proven levels of helmets and body protectors that protect our riders during an accident, yet there is no FEI standard similar to skiing (FIS) for helmets and no FEI standard for body protectors.”

He continued: “Suggestions for changing the scoring system by introducing penalty systems that change the nature of cross country, not only add complication, but will change the way the next generation of riders view the respect they have for cross country fences.

“The document also mentions the need to simplify the scoring system. How can adding new penalty rules do anything but complicate the scoring system and make our sport look insecure and indecisive?

“The fact is our scoring system is simple. The closest to zero wins. How simple can that be to understand?”

The overall answer was to promote the sport, its values, its stakeholders and its sponsors in a positive way, he said.

“Our sport is incredible, yet where are those values being promoted? If we want to attract new interest then make the presentation of our sport interesting.”

He dismissed the suggestion that Eventing’s name could be changed. “We are Eventing. We need to build the brand of Eventing, promote its values and show the world a modernised image of our sport.”

He noted, too, that nations that don’t have Eventing have an equal say in the FEI through their vote alongside the recognised Eventing nations.

“Is it time for sport-specific governance within the FEI? Eventing is a sport in its own right, not a discipline. We are our own sport.

“So where does all this leave us? Hopefully in a very healthy position, not because there is any agreement, but because the paper presented by the FEI opens doors for all stakeholders to get involved and think about our sport,” he said.

Bruce Haskell’s response statement can be read in full here
The association has produced a point by point response to the proposals in the Eventing document. They can be read here

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