Let the Games begin …. or at least get them back on track

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Keep calm and carry on: The important thing is to keep smiling.
Keep calm and carry on: The important thing is to keep smiling.

It’s a good thing that watchmaker Longines is backing the 2018 World Equestrian Games, because we need to be sure the gentle ticking emerging from the Canadian host city of Bromont is a luxury Swiss timepiece and not an organisational time bomb.

If all goes to plan, the Games will begin in 27 months. It will be a cause for celebration, not so much for bringing together the world’s top equestrian talent, but for getting these Games off the ground at all.

We have seen a series of high-profile resignations from the Bromont Games organizing committee in the past week, including the board chairman and chief executive.

It seems there are money worries, which probably isn’t unusual for events of this scale, but it is to be hoped the Quebec-based organisers make a statement soon to placate concerns.

Outgoing chief executive Luc Fournier appeared to lay some of the blame for the current situation with the FEI, telling a local newspaper that tensions with the world governing body had become untenable. He said the FEI was asked repeatedly to ease its financing terms for the Games, apparently without success.

Fournier indicated that funds injected by the Quebec Government had kept the Games effort moving.

Before we take a look at the long and circuitous path to the 2018 Games, it is worth considering how the world is changing in terms of staging major sporting events.

Modern-day taxpayers seem much more concerned about where their money is being spent. They have a limited appetite for subsidising costly infrastructure – stadia and the like – for the running of international events.

The world is littered with expensive sports facilities which have turned into white elephants for hapless taxpayers who are left paying them off long after the athletes have faded from memory.

So, in this modern age, sporting bodies talk about sustainability, affordability and legacy projects – facilities left behind that provide ongoing benefit to communities.

This strategy prevails for many global sporting championships, from the Olympics down. Indeed, the reasons for capping Olympic numbers and bringing in a series of reforms have been as much about keeping the cost of the Olympics within check, as it has about introducing more flexibility to the sporting program.

The World Equestrian Games, first held in 1990, takes a similar approach to sustainability and legacy issues, but it is still expensive to stage – the Bromont incarnation is likely to cost around $C95 million, with roughly three-quarters tagged for the operational budget and the rest for required infrastructure. That is a fair chunk of change.

So, let’s rewind to the rosy days of November 2011, when the FEI had received eight expressions of interest for staging the 2018 Games. That was a great start by any measure. However, the Australian, Russian and Swedish applications were withdrawn before the start of the official Candidate Phase the following year.

By June of 2012, five potential hosts were still in the hunt: Bromont, Rabat (Morocco), Budapest (Hungary), Vienna (Austria) and Wellington (Florida).

FEI President Ingmar De Vos, who was then secretary-general, declared his enthusiasm: “It is fantastic to have five really strong bids … and there could be no better endorsement of the FEI’s flagship event.”

Little more than two weeks later, Hungary withdrew over concerns that there were two candidates from the same region. It said it hoped its withdrawal would boost the fortunes of neighbouring Austria.

Then, the following month, Wellington withdrew amid concerns over potential local-government obstacles in getting the required equestrian facilities built for the Games in the popular but space-constrained equestrian hub.

In October 2012 Morocco pulled out, sparked by the death of Princess Lalla Amina in August. She had been president of the Fédération Royale Marocaine des Sports Equestres since 1999.

Then, in January 2013, Austria abandoned its bid, leaving Bromont standing in what had ultimately become a war of attrition.

Bromont’s representatives travelled to FEI headquarters a month later to give their presentation, proposing that the competition be held at the Bromont Equestrian Park, which staged the equestrian events during the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

De Vos later described it as an excellent presentation, saying the FEI was going to evaluate all elements and put together a detailed report for the final decision-making process.

Then, in July, news broke that the FEI was reopening bidding. The FEI Bureau decided against the bid because the Canadian delegation was unable to provide the full public-sector financial support required.

The FEI expressed a desire that Bromont remain in the hunt for the Games, but gave other prospective hosts until September 30 – three months – to register their interest.

Bromont was ultimately joined by Britain and two potential host venues in the United States – Wellington, Florida, and the 2010 hosts, Lexington, Kentucky.

Britain withdrew within weeks, citing insufficient time for its equestrian federation to secure funding and to identify a host venue by the November 15 deadline for formal bid applications.

In March, we learnt that Equestrian Sport Productions, the firm driving the Wellington bid, had withdrawn over conflicting sponsorship deals involving luxury watchmakers Longines and Rolex. The FEI had a deal in place with Longines for the 2018 event, which conflicted with the company’s venue sponsorship by Rolex.

In June, after presentations by the Lexington and Bromont backers, the FEI Bureau announced that Bromont would host the Games.

After that marathon endeavour, it’s surprising anyone has enough energy left to organise the Games.

The North American location (it will be only the second time the Games have been held outside Europe) is likely to have some impact on spectator numbers. Still, we are likely to see something approaching 900 riders from more than 60 nations, and recent projections put spectator numbers at around 350,000.

The event could well generate more than $C400 million in economic activity for Canada.

But, rosy as those figures appear, the resignations and worries expressed by Fournier hardly paint a picture of an organising committee sailing with a beneficial tailwind.

The problems are surprising, given the extensive review of the World Equestrian Games ordered by the FEI following the 2014 Normandy event.

Consultants urged the FEI to have more input in staging future Games. Their findings, presented to delegates at last year’s Sports Forum, found that WEG had become too costly and too complex.

De Vos stressed that national federations, athletes and spectators overwhelmingly backed the concept of a multi-disciplinary equestrian games.

“On the other hand, it was also identified that we need to better control these Games from a cost perspective,” he said.

“If we want to find bidders for these Games, we need to be able to provide a very clear finance plan and package of what we expect the organising committee to deliver.”

Establishing a clear budget was crucial, he said, and this was possible only if potential bidders knew beforehand how many horses and athletes were attending. This was also important from a media perspective to be able to have a clear vision of what they could expect from the Games.

The lesson from Normandy was the need for integration and the one-venue concept – not having different venues spread across the city or region, he said.

“So 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.”

De Vos said the FEI had worked closely with the Normandy organising committee in delivering those Games.

“I think we took on a lot of responsibility. Do we have to do that more in the future? Yes, probably. It is our event. An organising committee organises one edition and then disappears, and we have to live with the legacy.”

So is De Vos confident that more potential hosts will put up their hand in the future?

“Yes, I think so,” he told Horsetalk last year. The key, he said, was providing clarity around requirements and good information on the potential for economic return. “We have already had a lot of interest shown for the 2022 Games.”

Indeed, the FEI called for expressions of interest at the start of last month, with a deadline of May 15.

So, what of Bromont’s Games?

The loss of a chief executive and board chairman is not a good look, especially following the tribulations involved in finding a host in the first place. I doubt the project is entirely becalmed. The chief executive has given three months’ notice, and no doubt preparations will continue.

I hope we receive a detailed explanation soon of the issues causing the current angst and how the organisers and the FEI intend to deal with them. Potential sponsors, competitors and spectators need a high degree of certainty.

The organisers must act fast to turn that tide of doubt.

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