Dermott Lennon is a universally renowned horseman and is the only Irish rider to have won individual gold in show jumping at the World Equestrian Games (WEG).
Dermott achieved this remarkable triumph on the now sadly departed Liscalgot at the 2002 Games in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, a feat never before equalled by an Irish rider.
Nor, sadly, will it ever be again. At least, not in the same way.
The highlight of the individual world show jumping championships, the “interesting bit” that everyone watched, was when the final four competitors who had battled their way through days of intense competition, were finally left to “duel it out”.
This included a rotation of horses. In other words, you rode your own horse over a course of jumps, and then you had to ride the same course on the other three horses who had reached the final. All four riders were required to do this.
The skill, quite obviously, came from your ability to jump at the very highest level of the sport on a horse that you had never ridden before, a horse totally unfamiliar to you.
The final confrontation was therefore almost gladiatorial in its display. What’s more, it could be enjoyed by spectators or tv viewers who didn’t quite understand all the nuances of show jumping.
Last week the sport’s world governing body, the FEI, without any widespread consultation, decreed that this final element of the world championship would be quietly dropped.
This strange ruling follows hard on the heels of another FEI decision, supported by Ireland among others, to change the format of team participation in the Olympics for show jumping, eventing and dressage.
Essentially, the Olympic decision reduces show jumping, dressage and eventing teams to three riders per nation, with, obviously, no discard score allowed. Behind the idea seems to be an attempt to open Olympic qualification to more nations, including some who would never have had the riding skills or the horsepower to make it as far as previous Olympics.
The discard score in equestrian teams was originally introduced in part because of the unpredictable factor of the horse – the only sport, it might be said, where one half of the combination is not only prone to illness or accidental injury, but is also unaware that it’s actually taking part in a competition.
Dispensing with the discard score will mean that nations will now be forced to field teams of only their most experienced riders and horses, thereby depriving younger and up-and-coming riders of a chance to compete at the Olympics.
The intention of allowing more nations to take part may have unpredictable consequences. Either serious falls and even injury on course could occur as inexperienced riders tackle huge Olympic tracks, or, alternatively, to prevent this occurring, all the obstacles will have to be reduced in height and width to accommodate more novice competitors. But then, could the course still be considered to be of Olympic standard? Will we face a situation where the Olympics are no longer the ultimate test of horse and rider?
The logic behind the new rules seems deeply flawed, but only 11 nations out of the 107 represented at the FEI General Assembly voted against the Olympic format change – these were Albania, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Romania and Switzerland.
It is interesting to note that a large number of the nations who voted for the change don’t currently have multiple rider and horse combinations competing at Olympic level, but still had the same voting rights as, say, Germany, a country that boasts many five-star riders and horses.
While the decision might be defended as democratic, one cannot help but wonder if the riders ranked in the world’s top 500 had been polled instead, would the format change have been passed? Almost certainly not. Therefore this may be seen as another example of federations making fundamental changes to the sport without consulting the main players – the riders.
As an example, after the vote was cast some of Canada’s top equestrian athletes angrily declared that their views were not taken into consideration by their national federation on this issue before the decision was made on their behalf.
The same applies to Ireland. It seems that no input was requested from our high performance show jumpers and eventers before this momentous decision was made….supposedly on their behalf.
The prevailing opinion amongst Irish riders seems to be that the new rule will make Olympic team medals statistically much more difficult to obtain – and at a time when Ireland’s show jumpers in particular were looking forward to Horse Sport Ireland’s concentration on making the cut for Tokyo after three successive failures to qualify an Olympic team.
Why did Ireland support an FEI proposal that would, on the face of it, statistically lessen its chances of Olympic medals? Well, our governing body obviously felt afterwards that some justification was needed, so they published on their website an unprecedentedly long explanation – all 1,400 words of it. It remains to be seen if anyone will be convinced by this novella-length dissertation.
Meanwhile, in the world of Irish equestrian governance, it came as little surprise this week when businessman and Polo expert James Kennedy was appointed as interim CEO of Horse Sport Ireland.
Kennedy, chairman of HSI’s Finance Committee and a longtime boardroom ally of outgoing CEO Damian McDonald, takes up his interim duties on December 23. HSI says: “The Board agreed that it was important to recruit a permanent CEO as soon as possible and a tender process to engage a recruitment company to assist with the recruitment and selection of a new CEO will commence immediately.”
As Kennedy was also Chairman of the High Performance Committee, a replacement will have to be sought to fill his empty chair. (Anne Bannon will take over as chair of the HSI finance committee until James Kennedy’s period as acting CEO concludes.)
Meanwhile on the urgent matter of recruiting a new Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe, HSI has said: “We have started the process of engaging a recruitment company to assist us with the process of appointing a new Show Jumping High Performance Manager and we hope to advertise the role nationally and internationally shortly.”
It also seems odd that no announcement has yet been made of the composition of HSI’s show jumping high performance committee, following the expiry of Chef d’Equipe Robert Splaine’s contract. These are the people who will, despite all the obstacles, try to steer Ireland once more into Olympic qualification, especially in show jumping, where our teams have been absent from the ranks of elite nations for 12 long years.
HSI’s policy of stocking board seats with members of affiliate organisations doesn’t seem to cut the mustard when we’re chasing medals. Isn’t it time that people with Olympic experience were drafted in to play a major part in the careful planning and strategic thinking required for this most important of targets?
Keen-eyed readers will also notice that there is no mention of advertising the CEO position “nationally and internationally”. One would think that opening the selection process to candidates who had perhaps run a successful national federation elsewhere would be an attractive option.
After all, let us not forget that Horse Sport Ireland is really the Irish national federation, a component of the world governing body, so a representative familiar with FEI procedures and protocol, and who might perhaps speak other languages than English, would be a distinct advantage in championing Ireland’s cause on the world stage.
On a more optimistic note, Ireland’s top 20 Longines-ranked show jumping riders have appointed Clare native Michael Blake to represent their interests with the governing body, following a meeting on November 14 with HSI.
Michael Blake will need to keep his wits about him in the weeks and months to come if he is to stay a step ahead of HSI’s boardroom politics.
It is worth noting that at this meeting between HSI and the high performance riders, three key members of the governing body were present – James Kennedy, CEO Damian McDonald and current HSI chairman Pat Wall.
Yet at no time did these three indicate to the riders that their governing body was about to vote yes to the Olympic format changes. Nor was the riders’ opinion sought on this vital matter.
This does not augur well for future dialogue between the riders and the people who are supposed to be representing their best interests. Cynical observers might easily draw the conclusion that the opinions of the riders are not at the top of HSI’s list of priorities.