Still wearing your grumpy pants over Olympic reform? Tokyo program a win for horse sport

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FEI President Ingmar de Vos says the IOC’s confirmation of equestrian sport on the programme for 2024 and its approval of the new formats amounted to a direct acknowledgment of horse sport's willingness to adapt and modernise.
FEI President Ingmar de Vos says the IOC’s confirmation of equestrian sport on the programme for 2024 and its approval of the new formats amounted to a direct acknowledgment of horse sport’s willingness to adapt and modernise. © Edouard Curchod

The FEI family, as it is so fondly called, endured its fair share of wrangling over the concept, and then the reality, of Olympic reform.

A majority of nations stood up and accepted that change was needed and backed plans to shrink teams to three and lose the drop score in the three key Olympic disciplines.

Traditionalists from all corners of the equestrian world expressed varying degrees of unhappiness, although it has to be said that many accepted the word of senior FEI officials that change was necessary.

This week, details of the programme for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were locked down, and the IOC gave the nod to these new equestrian formats agreed by FEI delegates at their General Assembly late last year.

The IOC also confirmed the inclusion of equestrian sport at the 2024 Games, the venue for which will be decided later this year, with Paris and Los Angeles in the running.

Crucially, while the equestrian teams will be smaller, there will be no reduction in Tokyo in the number of equestrians competing. That, it now seems, is a major victory.

Looking at how some other sports have fared, the equestrian disciplines have done well.

The FEI fired out a press release in which president Ingmar De Vos welcomed the IOC’s Tokyo announcements.

He said the IOC’s confirmation of equestrian sport on the programme for 2024 and its approval of the new formats amounted to a direct acknowledgment of horse sport’s willingness to adapt and modernise. “So all the work to drive change and increase universality has been worthwhile,” he said.

A willingness to embrace change was without any doubt the reason equestrian sport got such “fantastic news” from the IOC, he added.

FEI President Ingmar de Vos with IOC President Thomas Bach, and Olivia Robinson from the FEI.
FEI President Ingmar de Vos with IOC President Thomas Bach, and Olivia Robinson from the FEI. © FEI

It may well prove to be one of the most significant achievements of his presidency.

It has to be said that the equestrian disciplines have some key advantages at the Olympics. They have no gender balance issues and it remains one of those rare sports in which women and men can compete against each other on an equal footing. Riders continue to compete at ages where, in most other sports, athletes have long-sinced retired, resigned to sitting back on their couches with a Brandy Alexander and watching the Games on TV.

However, there are disadvantages, too. There has been concern at Olympic level that not enough countries were represented at the Games. There is also the cost of equestrian facilities, both for housing the horses and staging the events, in particular building the cross-country course.

The reform package approved by FEI delegates, and now accepted by the IOC, will have more countries than ever represented at Tokyo and hopefully beyond. There is an expectation that the new formats will be more media friendly, because every Olympic sport is on notice that the IOC is watching viewer and online numbers, especially so television audiences.

The IOC, under its Agenda 2020 reform package, promised more flexibility in the Olympic programme and that is what it has delivered. They appear to have done so while maintaining a cap on athlete numbers. The latter, of course, was the biggest fear for all sports, because you don’t have to be a mathematician to understand that if you’re introducing more events and capping athlete numbers, something has to give.

So, for those still wearing their grumpy pants over the equestrian reforms, let’s look at how other sports have fared.

Firstly, there remain 28 sports at the Games. Across these sports, there has been an overall drop of 285 athletes. So, by that measure alone, equestrian sport has done well to hold its own.

One imagines that this drop of 285 will be swallowed up by the addition of five sports for Tokyo – surfing, sport climbing, skateboarding, karate, and baseball/softball. Even with these sports, the IOC will likely remain close to the cap agreed under the Agenda 2020 package.

There are 15 new events approved within the core sports for Tokyo, including a significant number of mixed team/relay events. Weightlifting loses one men’s weight category.

Looking at individual disciplines, water polo loses 18 athletes, achieved through a reduction of team size. Two women’s water polo teams are added to aid gender balance.

Swimming, while it picks up an 800-metre men’s event, a 1500-metre women’s event, and a 4×100-metre medley mixed relay, will lose 22 athletes overall.

Athletics will lose 105 spots, presumably achieved through tougher qualifying standards.

The big winner is basketball, which will now include a 3×3 competition, with eight teams for each gender. This is a three-a-side form of the game played with just one hoop. A study commissioned by the IOC shows it is the largest urban team sport in the world.

Boxing, canoeing and BMX racing will not suffer any reductions, but boxing will move 44 spots from the men’s competition to the women’s competition, canoeing will transfer 55, and BMX racing will move eight. This will, according to the IOC, result in gender balance in the case of canoeing and BMX racing.

Mountainbiking will transfer eight men’s spots to reach gender balance and will transfer four male athlete spots to BMX freestyle. Road cycling will transfer 14 men’s spots to BMX freestyle.

Judo will see 38 fewer men compete, with those positions going to women.

Rowing will lose 24 athletes – the majority likely to be male – to reach gender balance.

Sailing will be reduced by 30 athletes, again with the aim of reaching gender balance, while weightlifting will lose 64 with the same goal.

Wrestling is another big loser, with a reduction of 56 athletes across all its disciplines, with the stated aim of achieving gender balance in freestyle events.

The upshot is that 48.8% of athletes at Tokyo will be women, which will make 2020 the most gender-balanced Games in history. This compares to 45.6% women at Rio and 44.2% at London.

So, for equestrian sport, one must inevitably conclude that the pain was worth it. By comparison, some of the losing sports from this process will be really smarting.

The FEI was aggressive in pushing its Olympic reform agenda and I think it is now clear as to why it was unwavering in its determination. The FEI has friends on the IOC – indeed, its last president, Princess Haya, was a member – and it must have known just how single-minded the Olympic ruling body was in its reform programme.

Make no mistake. This is a significant victory for Olympic equestrian sport.

 

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