Endurance: Tales from the FEI’s X-Files

endurance-sun-stock_2085Many years ago, when I was at the bottom of the pecking order in a newsroom, it was my job to sort the morning mail and distribute it to the reporters.

I worked with a lovely woman named Gaynor Loriman. Every month or so, Gaynor received a mailed newsletter from the South Korean embassy in New Zealand. It was addressed to Gay Nor Fori Mar.

Years later, when I was picture editor at another newspaper, I got my very own letter from the Korean embassy. In the days before digital pictures, they had kindly sent me an updated head-and-shoulders file photograph of their beloved president. I opened the cardboard cylinder and pulled out a poster, measuring 1 metre by 1.5 metres.

This is the same nation that went on to give us Psy and Gangnam Style. That, I guess, is just how the quirky South Koreans roll.

I have been pondering these past few days about how the FEI rolls, as we digest the two FEI Tribunal decisions relating to the series of rides in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in which the results inexplicably mirrored those of previous races.

The equestrian journalist Pippa Cuckson broke the story in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper about a year ago.

As sporting scandals go, it was a doozy – the veritable Mother of All Endurance Scandals. Could it really be that these were phantom rides? Why, if the rides did indeed take place, was there the need to copy older results and submit fictitious returns to the FEI?

Well, 12 months after the story broke, I am saddened to report that a complete and definitive account of what happened has yet to emerge from Planet FEI. My theory is that the details have been trapped by the Lausanne-based world governing body’s inexorable gravitational pull, or the facts have been sucked into a mysterious black hole in the staff cafeteria.

I have, over the months, written a fair bit about this endurance scandal, based on the occasional piece or two of the jigsaw puzzle that the FEI has let fall from the box.

I expressed the view – or should I say hope – that we would eventually learn more once the FEI Tribunal had worked its magic. After all, the FEI wouldn’t want to say or do anything to jeopardize any tribunal action.

But now it’s all over and I can think of no reason why the FEI shouldn’t provide full disclosure. Because, as things stand, if you want to get any decent handle on events, you won’t find it in the missives released by the FEI. Your best bet would be to follow the work of Cuckson.

I get that this entire saga has been embarrassing for the FEI and damaging for endurance. And I understand that the UAE – the problem child of world endurance – appears to be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, and has struggled with remembering its obligations under a deal it signed with the FEI last year to abide by the rules of endurance and generally behave.

However, as things stand, there are unanswered questions over the faked-results scandal.

For example, should we be satisfied that the two people held to account before the FEI Tribunal were the only individuals culpable in this whole drama? And, in everything I have read, I am still a bit mystified over exactly how it all came to pass.

I would suggest that this could only ever happen in a comparatively small sport like endurance, which doesn’t garner widespread media attention. If this same scandal happened in a high-profile sport of any description, the media would still be camped outside the world governing body’s headquarters awaiting answers.

So, what do we know? Well, without conducting a forensic analysis of the FEI database (amended following the scandal), let’s see what the organisation has actually told us.

Climb aboard the Tardis and let’s head back to last year:

gallop-endurance400March 5, 2015: The Telegraph in Britain publishes Cuckson’s piece, in which she details how 12 races staged in the UAE since 2012 carried duplicated results from earlier events.

March 12, 2015: The FEI announces the provisional suspension of the UAE following an investigation by the FEI into major horse welfare issues and non-compliance with FEI rules and regulations in endurance. However, this suspension had nothing to do with Cuckson’s revelations. The FEI had apparently been corresponding with the UAE over welfare concerns for a while. However, its press release did conclude: “Separately, the FEI has requested the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit to conduct a full investigation into allegations of fake events and the duplication of results at FEI Endurance events in the UAE.”

April 22, 2015: The FEI announces that the UAE is appealing against its provisional suspension.

May 7, 2015: The FEI announces the release of an FEI Tribunal decision. The tribunal rejects the UAE’s bid for an interim lifting of the provisional suspension.

May 26, 2015: The FEI said it received a delegation from the UAE and a very constructive meeting was held. The meeting was only possible following the withdrawal of the UAE’s appeal against the suspension.

June 9, 2015: The FEI Bureau welcomes a series of reform proposals from the UAE, but there is no specific reference to the mysterious duplicate results.

July 27, 2015: It is announced that a deal has been signed between the UAE national federation and the FEI which allows the lifting of the provisional suspension. The agreement is legally binding. We get three paragraphs on the fake-results scandal:

“Separately, the FEI had commissioned the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) to conduct an extensive inquiry into allegations of fake events and duplicate results in the UAE. These allegations were not taken into account when the FEI Bureau imposed the suspension, and were dealt with independently, but provisions have been included in the agreement to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

“The Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF) cooperated fully with the inquiry and the detailed report has now been received by the FEI. The report is currently being reviewed by the FEI and a file will be submitted to the FEI Tribunal for further action. Sanctions will be taken against any FEI Officials found to be involved. In addition, the FEI will annul all duplicated results and review any connected results.

“At the same time, the EEF Endurance Committee conducted its own investigation into the allegations and has authorised sanctions on any Organisers and EEF staff that are found to be involved. The EEF is currently restructuring its organisational policies to ensure that similar events cannot occur again and will put rules in place for all future FEI events under which either the National Federation or the Organising Committee must provide all equipment, including the timing system.”

September 17, 2015: The FEI announces the provisional suspension of Dr Hallvard Sommerseth, then head of the Veterinary Department at the Emirates Equestrian Federation for alleged non-compliance with FEI rules and regulations – “and his involvement in a number of events from which duplicate results were submitted to the FEI”. The matter related to several UAE endurance rides at which Sommerseth had officiated between April 2012 and February 2014. The FEI said: “By allowing the events to take place without accurate timing systems he failed in his responsibility as technical delegate and this failure was a contributory factor in duplicate results being submitted to the FEI.” The findings, the release said, were based on the report produced by the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit. According to that report, timing systems were not used at these events and accurate timings were not taken of each competitor’s phases, as required under FEI endurance rules. Instead, times submitted in the official results provided to the FEI were copied from other events.

The release continued that the events and duplicate results in the UAE were used specifically for qualification purposes. “The FEI IT Department is currently removing all such events from the FEI calendar and deleting all duplicate results. Any horse/rider combinations that used these duplicate results for qualification for subsequent events, and were therefore ineligible, have already either been or will be disqualified.”

March 11, 2016: The FEI announces that FEI Tribunal decisions have been released in the Sommerseth case, and also in the case of Abdul Aziz Sheikh, former head of the Emirates Endurance Department, who had been provisionally suspended on October 13 last year over his alleged involvement in the matter.

And so we arrive at this week. Let’s step out of the Tardis and see what we can glean from the decisions in the Sommerseth and Sheikh cases, although it should be stressed that the FEI Tribunal is under no obligation to provide any account whatsoever of the fake-results scandal beyond the matters relevant to the alleged conduct of Sommerseth and Sheikh. For the record, both men were suspended and fined over their roles.

Let’s summarise the “factual background” outlined by the tribunal in the Sommerseth case.

Following the Telegraph‘s report, the FEI asked the Equine Community Integrity Unit to investigate, specifically, certain FEI 1* and 2* endurance events, which had taken place between November 4, 2012, and January 21, 2015, in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

In addition, the Emirates Equestrian Federation told the FEI that it had also identified other international endurance events (CEIs), the results of which had been duplicated or copied from other events. In these events, it found that timing systems had not been used and accurate timings had not been taken of each competitor’s phases. Instead, the times submitted in the official results sent to the FEI had been duplicated/copied from previous events.

Sommerseth had acted as technical delegate at 12 of the CEIs where results were duplicated from previous results, between April 19, 2012, and February 23, 2014.

He had purportedly allowed the events to proceed without accurate timing systems, hence failing in his duty as a technical delegate. His failure in this regard had contributed to duplicate results being submitted to the FEI, it was submitted.

So what of Sommerseth’s explanation? When interviewed on June 29 last year, he said there had been “no exact timing in minutes and seconds”, and “no timing in this ride”. He explained that there had been a list of horses that had qualified and that the results had to be sent to the FEI. Since the FEI had required a certain format of results (including timing) he did not consider using existing rides that had approximately the same speed as cheating.

He further explained that small rides outside the three main endurance villages in the UAE had been organised by the national federation for qualification purposes only. Manual timepieces were used instead of computerised timing systems. He later explained that when he said “there was no timing” he had meant “no normal computer timing”.

He explained that the rides had taken place only for qualifying purposes and only for selected stables. They were not open to everyone, and that there had been no competitive aspect or prize money involved. The rides were aiming to bring selected horses and riders through the stepladder of FEI rides from 1* to 2*, and therefore enabling them to later take part in 3* rides, of which only two were held in the UAE.

Therefore, in his view, no computerized timing, or official timekeepers had been required.

Later, during a tribunal telephone conference hearing, Sommerseth insisted that he did not know that the endurance and IT departments of the UAE federation had duplicated the results to be sent to the FEI, and that he apologized for that.

He said that although he found it very sad that the reputation of the FEI had been damaged, in his opinion he should not have to be taking the blame for that.

The Sheikh decision traversed a similar factual background.

Sheikh, it transpired, had acted as president of the ground jury at eight of the CEIs where results were duplicated.

He, too, was interviewed on June 29 last year, during which he in essence confirmed that there had not been any timing system in place for the events. He said: “… I can tell you about the rides where we have done where there is no timing system. What we have done we have taken the order of finish; we have inserted the name of the riders and the horses and submitted to the NF [national federation]. Now, NF they have forwarded to the FEI without realising that there is no fresh timing in there; they should have left it blank or something you know.”

He said the schedules for the events had only listed a minimum speed of 12kmh under the item “time limit” as part of the specific technical conditions. On that basis, the rides had been allowed to take place without any accurate timing system, and that he believed that the inclusion of specific timing in the schedules had become one of the requirements only as of January 1, 2016.

And that is the sum total that we know based on the statements released by the FEI and the two FEI Tribunal decisions.

I guess we get the basic idea, but there are many unanswered questions. Who actually entered the fake results? Surely, someone must have issued the instruction to use results from previous events? Did the riders – pretty much all hired staff – know what was going on? Had other officials noticed the timing shortcomings and done nothing? Even the FEI acknowledged in an earlier release that Sommerseth’s decision to allow the events to take place without accurate timing systems was a contributory factor in the fake results going into the FEI.

I believe the FEI should have released more information about this matter. Once it had enough evidence to amend the results in the FEI database, it surely had enough information to make a reasonably detailed disclosure about what had happened.

The details that have emerged are limited, to say the least, and I would venture to suggest we don’t have an entirely coherent account.

Surely, the FEI owes us a detailed account of what happened. We are told that the Emirates Equestrian Federation got on board and cooperated – certainly after it withdrew its appeal against its provisional suspension. The Equestrian Community Integrity Unit has produced its report. The FEI Tribunal has done its thing.

Surely, between all that, we can get a complete coherent account. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

3 thoughts on “Endurance: Tales from the FEI’s X-Files

  • March 14, 2016 at 2:33 pm
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    We use digital clocks in New Zealand.

    The absence of a computerised timing system as an excuse for falsifying results is just bollocks. And I do not believe for a second that these two were the only culpable parties in this whole sorry affair.

    If the FEI thinks that this in anyway restores any credibility to the sport of endurance under it’s watch, it is sadly mistaken.

    Reply
  • March 15, 2016 at 11:20 pm
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    One is left speechless at the sheer gall of both the FEI AND the EEF – that either party could possibly think that these are adequate explanations, or solutions for the parlous state of endurance.
    The minutes of the Endurance Board Meeting of 16 February 2016, revealed that the ESNZ (Vicky Glynn, chair) opted not to make any comments on the situation, despite national and international pressure to do so , because “FEI were already in discussions regarding these issues so ESNZ opted to stay out of it as there was nothing to be gained by wading in.”

    This is not a schoolyard squabble. And it’s not going away.

    Reply
  • March 17, 2016 at 6:47 am
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    This case of circumventing the FEI qualification system is also evidence of just how completely counter effective the system is at supporting horse welfare. Many of horses went on to excel at races, without being forced to go through a qualifying system that only does the horses more harm than good. The only function of the FEI qualifying system is to force additional participation at races, enhance the advantages of larger stables, and make the discipline more like flat racing. For more details in this aspect see: awarewelfare.net

    Reply

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