WEG Endurance fallout: A skeleton that might have been better kept in the closet

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An endurance test event took place at the Tryon International Endurance Center in May this year.
The endurance track at the Tryon International Endurance Center, pictured at a test event in mid 2018.

Sometimes, you’re better to accept the cruel lessons of the past and move on.

I think the FEI should have done so when it came to the case it brought against the chief d’equipe for the Spanish endurance team at the World Equestrian Games last year.

It would have better to let the matter lie.

The circumstances of this cancelled world championship ride have been well traversed. Followers of the discipline are well aware of shortcomings which resulted in confusion at the start of the race, which resulted in the first loop being voided.

A shorter 120km race was hastily put in place, but this was later abandoned due to dangerous levels of heat and humidity, when the Spanish team was comfortably in front.

Everyone carries cellphones these days and it was hardly surprising that video footage of the resulting pandemonium and acrimony was soon splashed across social media.

Calling off the race due to the weather was a perfectly acceptable call. I believe few people, on reflection, take issue with this. But the shortcomings that had gone before, combined with the cancellation, sent frustration levels through the roof.

The scenes that unfolded amounted to a public relations disaster for the sport of endurance, for the World Equestrian Games, and for the FEI.

The FEI decided to take Dr Ignasi Casas Vaque to the FEI Tribunal over his alleged behaviour following the cancellation, and on reflection it was not a good call.

For a start, the sorry circumstances of the endurance debacle were bound to get yet another good airing once the decision came out.

And, second, it should have been plain that Vaque had plenty of ammunition to lob the way of the FEI in his defence.

Without revisiting the entire decision, we should first of all acknowledge the findings of the tribunal, comprising members Armand Leone, Laurent Niddam and Henrik Arle, that Vaque had displayed incorrect behaviour towards event officials, the details of which can be found in this report.

It was rightly pointed out that, as chef d’equipe for the Spanish endurance team, he had a duty to enforce FEI rules, be respectful to other competitors and officials, and maintain a safe environment for the horses competing in the event.

Vaque was fined and formally suspended for 12 months from acting as an FEI official or having any involvement in FEI activities at a national or international level. The suspension will run until February 24 next year.

It is, in my view, a pyrrhic victory for the FEI.

The tribunal rejected the majority of the grounds on which the FEI had taken the case.

The world governing body based its position on several videos from the event, going so far as to suggest that Vaque may even have been inciting a riot in urging people to enter the vet gate area for the purpose of protesting against the decision to cancel the competition.

Vaque, it argued, displayed aggressive body language and was shouting, encouraging others to engage in an aggressive protest. His behaviour, it argued, was intimidating and he had engaged in conduct that brought equestrian sport, and the FEI in particular, into disrepute.

It is hardly surprising that Vaque took a different view.

He described in his submission the organisational flaws before and during the competition, saying the decision to cancel the race had been taken without any prior warning.

“The decision, by itself, caused frustration and disbelief, even worse, since it had been taken exactly because of circumstances about which all participants had previously warned, i.e., the heat and humidity level.”

He denied being aggressive or violent, and argued that he did not behave inappropriately in any way.

For the Spanish team in particular, which was leading, the decision to cancel the race was a shock. As a result, he became emotional; he expressed his anger and frustration.

The FEI’s assertions were simply and objectively untrue, he said, describing the allegation that he incited others to break through the perimeter as baseless. He was not even present at that time, but later he did wave at his two assistants who were outside the restricted area.

He certainly did not incite any type of anger or riot, he asserted.

Vaque said he did not dispute that he said to the president of the Ground Jury “the riders will kill you”. However, the plain meaning of the words rendered it obvious that this was no threat whatsoever. It was a figure of speech.

He further argued that the video footage demonstrated that he never incited any type of violent behaviour. Had he done so, the police present would have intervened and criminal charges would have been laid against him. This did not happen.

Turning to the allegation that he had brought equestrian sport and the FEI into disrepute, he argued that he could not be blamed for the chaos at the race, nor could he be blamed for the frustration among spectators and their angry outbursts.

Nor could he be blamed for what was posted on social media.

The FEI, he argued, was trying to put all the blame on him. All he did was to express his anger and frustration, and he tried to present wrong decisions and warn FEI officials how the riders would react.

It was certainly true that he did so in an emotional way, but this was understandable in the circumstances.

The FEI, he said, was looking for a scapegoat, and he should not be held responsible for the failures at the event.

The tribunal, in what can only be described as a wafer-thin layer of diplomacy, said there was ample evidence presented showing that the competition was poorly managed and caused frustration and anger among the participants.

It noted that no evidence of physical violence by Vaque was displayed on the video, and no claim of physical violence was made against him. No witnesses testified about feeling intimidated or being fearful for their safety as a result of Vaque’s conduct.

In short, the FEI had not shown that Vaque conducted a criminal act. It also found that the FEI was  overreaching in suggesting that Vaque’s words amounted to any kind of death threat.

Nor did it find that the actions of Vaque brought equestrian sport, and the FEI in particular, into disrepute.

And, at this point, any diplomacy is largely out the window: “The tribunal comes to this conclusion as the poor organisation and errors in running the event had already put a stain on the reputation of the FEI and possible disrepute of the FEI.

“The tribunal finds that (Vaque’s) actions were not a significant factor in causing damage to the FEI’s reputation, as it had already been damaged by the running of the event itself.”

So, there you have it. The actions of Vaque had not brought equestrian sport, nor the FEI, into disrepute because the world governing body had done a perfectly good job of doing that itself.

And, at that point, any moral high ground the FEI thought it might have been occupying pretty much disappeared, in my view.

It has a 12-month suspension and 2000 Swiss francs on the right side of the accounting ledger, but it is hard to view it as much of a win.

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