Shortly after the election of FEI President Ingmar De Vos, a wag cheekily suggested I should ask him what it’s like to be the world’s most famous Belgian.
Come on, I replied, the world is full of famous Belgians.
Admittedly, names didn’t immediately spring to mind.
If only a website were devoted to such a worthy subject. As it happens, there is!
I surfed on over to Famousbelgians.net, where an exhaustive account of Belgium’s best and brightest can be found, along with a gentle front-page chiding for those who believe the world lacks famous Belgians.
Naturally, I made my way to the list entitled “The current Top 10 famous Belgians”, to find no sign of De Vos. A mistake, surely?
It transpires that Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the inventor of bakelite plastic, manages to make the list, but not poor Ingmar. In fact, there is not one mention of De Vos on the entire website!
I must confess that the temptation is fierce to buy the web address, morefamousbelgians.net, and right this egregious wrong, but De Vos would no doubt challenge the entire exercise. Surely, he would argue, the most influential Belgian is Mrs De Vos.
While fame appears to have eluded the FEI president thus far, the headlines have not. Looking back over his first 10 months as president, no-one can accuse him of standing still.
De Vos faced a contested election in Azerbaijan last December, in which all candidates spoke of the need for sporting reform, saying the wider organisation needed to have the courage to look at competition formats with unbiased, open minds.
“If we want to promote our sport in the best way possible, we need to make the sport accessible, exciting and easy to understand for a larger audience,” De Vos suggested. “This means that our competition formats need to be adapted for modern television and digital media.”
De Vos is well aware that much rides on the success of this reform agenda, including horse sport’s place in the Olympic programme.
All Olympic sports are evaluated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on many parameters, with popularity on television, the internet and social media of growing importance.
De Vos spelled out the importance of continuing to grow horse sport’s popularity, not least because it is the IOC’s evaluations which decide the distribution of Olympic television revenues to international sporting federations.
It was therefore important to showcase horse sports on television and on platforms unrelated to the Olympics as much as possible. “To achieve this, we need to promote our sport in general on global networks and use our flagship events more effectively for this purpose,” he said.
“We need to make our sport more accessible for a larger audience by reviewing our competition formats – not only for the Olympics but in general across the disciplines.”
It’s easy to talk the talk when it comes to reform, but much harder to implement it.
De Vos has been pushing this agenda hard. The world governing body is working through a transparent and methodical process to effect change, with De Vos saying he hoped the changes would be in place for the World Equestrian Games in 2018.
Options got their first public airing late in April during the FEI Sports Forum in Switzerland, when delegates considered proposals developed by the technical committees of each discipline.
I can’t help but sense that the reform agenda may well prove to be the defining issue of his presidency. He is trying to bring about change in a group of disciplines that certainly have their traditionalists. While many see the need for change, others are protective of the disciplines and their history.
Reforms will ultimately be measured on two levels: whether they successfully preserve the best elements of the disciplines and whether they actually work in boosting profile and audiences. Neither is guaranteed.
It is understandable that some aficionados are very worried, but it is notable that discussions to date have proceeded pretty constructively without toys raining down from the respective cots of each discipline.
The biggest challenge will be coming up with equestrian competitions suitable for television that are easy to distribute, with 60-90 minute formats considered best suited for this. These are the much-vaunted “media-friendly packages”. In short, we’re talking tighter and easier-to-follow formats that are likely to win greater favour with broadcasters.
De Vos has publicly urged the movers and shakers in the horse world to embrace such changes.
More consistent competition formats is part of this plan, too, at continental, world championship and Olympic level.
De Vos commented last June: “Today in our community there is an openness and much more preparedness to consider important changes for our sport to make it more attractive.”
But how much change will the equestrian world be prepared to accept? We’ll get our first real idea at the annual General Assembly in Puerto Rico next month, when it is likely nations may be asked to consider some quite specific proposals for change.
It will be a fascinating process as not only the FEI, but individual nations, set about making decisions that balance the perceived need for reform against the desire of the purists and traditionalists.
The Olympic question
The future of horse sport’s three Olympic disciplines are also central to the need for reform. The equestrian community is understandably united in the view that showjumping, dressage and eventing must remain part of the Olympic movement.
You may remember that the IOC adopted its Agenda 2020 reform program late last year, which will, among other things, result in caps on athlete numbers and allow for greater flexibility within the Olympic program. That could well see disciplines rotated in and out of the Olympic program, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the lower tier sports are most at-risk.
International sporting federations have been left in no doubt that the media appeal of disciplines – television, magazines, newspapers, online news sites and social media – is a key element on which inclusion within the Olympic movement is judged. Disciplines must have global reach and appeal. Disciplines that tend to draw competitors from a comparatively small pool of countries (think eventing) will need to broaden their appeal.
De Vos, to his credit, has been consistent in his message. All in all, it highlights just how important the FEI’s reform program is to the future shape and success of horse sport.
De Vos pulls no punches: “The current formats clearly have their weaknesses,” he said in June. They were, he said, not conducive to attracting bigger audiences and did not accommodate an increase in the number of nations participating.
That has to change.
The United Arab Emirates
Sporting controversies don’t get much worse than this one. The United Arab Emirates was provisionally suspended by the FEI Bureau on March 12 over horse welfare concerns and non-compliance with FEI rules and regulations.
In the week leading up to the suspension, Britain’s Daily Telegraph published a story that cast doubts over the results from a dozen or so endurance races in the country. Slabs of results mirrored those of previous races staged in the region.
This controversy had no bearing on the bureau’s decision to suspend the UAE, but it was clear these so-called “phantom races” would have to be dealt with before the nation could be re-admitted.
The UAE initially appealed, then withdrew it and came to the table. It has since been allowed to rejoin the FEI after agreeing to a raft of requirements aimed at ensuring that rides are run under FEI rules and that the highest standards of horse welfare are maintained.
The UAE promised to fully cooperate with the investigation into the phantom races. We must assume that the FEI is diligently working toward bringing disciplinary action against the individuals involved, but progress does seem somewhat glacial, especially given that the UAE federation should be co-operating every step of the way.
The UAE controversies have been a blight on endurance. It has been both appalling and embarrassing. Did the FEI have even the slightest clue about phantom races or doctored results? Ultimately, the whole controversy was blown open by British journalist Pippa Cuckson, who has no more investigative powers than any other member of the public.
Equally disappointing is the fact that anyone, anywhere, could treat the FEI’s rules with such apparent disdain, let alone the lip-service paid to horse welfare in the entire sorry saga.
For De Vos and the FEI Bureau, the provisional suspension proved to be a masterstroke. There was never, in my opinion, any winning endgame to the appeal the UAE initially lodged. Once the UAE federation realised that, it agreed to talks and we now have the best chance yet of bringing about meaningful reforms in UAE endurance.
That said, De Vos will have an even bigger problem on his hands if that fails to be the case in the coming UAE endurance season.
World Equestrian Games
There is a broad acknowledgement that the World Equestrian Games are getting too complex and too costly.
The FEI has acknowledged it is likely take on more responsibility over the staging of future Games.
The 2014 incarnation of WEG in Normandy, France, may have generated a profit, but it had its problems. While the main venue operated pretty well from all accounts, there were problems elsewhere. Hopeless traffic snarl-ups around the eventing cross-country venue resulted in thousands of bitter fans who missed a good deal of the action.
In endurance, the organisers set about marking out a variable and challenging course that was worthy of a world championship. Unfortunately, heavy rain left the course too challenging, and the attrition rate was too high. It thus fell short of the spectacle it should have been in such a spectacular backdrop.
A consultant’s report presented to delegates at the FEI Sports Forum last April revealed broad support for the concept of a multi-disciplinary equestrian games. So, how can the issues of cost and complexity be addressed?
For a start, it appears WEG will lock down the number of horses and athletes attending across the events. This will give bidders and organisers a much clearer picture of what to expect in hosting the Games.
There is also strong support for a one-venue concept, which offers potential savings in infrastructure.
De Vos is on the record as taking this a step further: “We need to control costs, we need to control the number of athletes … but that is not only in the framework of the World Equestrian Games, but in all our products.”
Inevitably, the FEI will be working even more closely with Games organising committees in the future.
“It is our event,” De Vos said in June. “An organising committee organises one edition and then disappears, and we have to live with the legacy.”
Out and about
De Vos managed in his first 10 months to visit national federations in Italy, Australia, New Zealand, France, Bulgaria and Malaysia. These represent invaluable opportunities for local officials to get their views across. The FEI says he will visit Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Chile and Uruguay before the end of the year.
De Vos said during last year’s presidential election campaign that change was necessary and that is indeed the path being taken by the FEI.
I think he can head to the General Assembly in Puerto Rico next month well satisfied that progress is being made on the broad agenda he proposed to national federations.
The big question is just how amenable national federations will ultimately be to changes within disciplines.
It has to be acknowledged that the easy route for any manager is to do nothing; to hope for the best. De Vos, to his credit, is pushing hard for change because he clearly believes it is the right course.
For sure, the FEI is not without its challenges, but they’re a saint-like bunch compared to their colleagues up the road in Zurich, where football’s world governing body, Fifa, can do little more than score own-goals at the moment.
As for the question of fame, I will be dropping an email to Famousbelgians.net in the near future to right this omission.
I am led to believe a draft Wikipedia entry has been written, so it is only a matter of time before that surfaces.
But I doubt any self-respecting Belgian truly feels he or she has made it until they appear on Famousbelgians.net.