Angry exchanges at the recent International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland are merely the latest manifestation of a growing rift between equestrian athletes and the world governing body for the sport, the FEI.
On one side, the FEI are agreeing to changes demanded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ahead of the Tokyo Games in 2020, and on the other side riders are accusing the FEI of showing disrespect by not first consulting them on the proposed changes.
The main bone of contention seems to be contained in the proposal to have the number of athletes in national teams reduced from four to three, and the elimination of the drop score (which allows the team’s worst score to be discarded).
The FEI has claimed that the modifications are intended to increase international access to the sport at the elite level and ensure the continued place of equestrian sports in the Olympic Games. With each competing nation sending less athletes, it is argued, more countries will be able to get into the Games, given the current overall maximum number of combinations allowed (200).
The riders have now been joined in their protests by the powerful Jumping Owners’ Club, who have written an open letter to the FEI expressing “surprise, disappointment and concern” that the opinions of riders and owners were not heard before the format changes were agreed upon.
The Jumping Owners’ Club also seem to be angry that an alternative Olympic format proposal, that included provisions for the welfare of the horse, and put forward by the IJRC, was not considered.
Cutting through all the debates currently raging, it is probably fair to say that equestrian sport is in danger of being dropped from the Olympic Games. It has already been downgraded in importance by the IOC, who have now expressed a sort of “take it or leave it” attitude towards their new limit of 200 combinations in total.
The IOC want more equestrian nations taking part in the Olympic Games, because equestrian sports were “not seen as accessible and relevant to a wide variety of nations and viewing publics”.
And there may lie the crux of the matter.
Equestrian sport is not seen as “accessible and relevant”.
The question has to be asked: did no-one see this coming down the line ten or 15 years ago? That the intricacies of equestrian sport were becoming more and more inappropriate to a worldwide audience with many other sports to watch and less and less time to figure out rules that seem arcane and at times mystifying?
It’s a fact that many ordinary sports fans – and even some commentators – today don’t know the difference between three day eventing and dressage.
Who’s to blame for this?
Well, somewhere along the way equestrian sport moved from being a tv regular with prime-time heroes like Harvey Smith and Paul Darragh and Eddie Macken to a woebegotten sideshow that is now only available on specialist web live streams or on “red button” tv channels that are well hidden behind conventional broadcasting. In other words, you have to be a diehard fan to find it.
Even the once world-famous London Olympia horse show is no longer available on Britain’s mainstream tv channels for almost all of its scheduled competitions.
In Ireland, aside from the Dublin Horse Show, tv coverage of equestrian sport in the “land of the horse” is now so threadbare that the governing body, Horse Sport Ireland, considers it a “news” story when a national channel spares a few seconds to mention a show jumping result at the tail-end of the main sports bulletin. To see these occasional incidents prominently displayed on the HSI Facebook page as some sort of achievement is almost embarrassing.
How did it come to this? Celebrating crumbs dropped from the rich man’s table? Even ten years ago we were generating much more coverage from our tv and radio stations and national newspapers.
The answer probably is that we simply became complacent and dropped the ball. Nobody, not even the FEI, pursued an aggressive media and marketing plan that would see equestrian sport develop to meet the challenges of the new digital age or the explosion of satellite sports broadcasting, social media and the abrupt decline of print media.
What, for instance, was the FEI thinking when it introduced a 50 euro fee to watch the otherwise excellent FEItv live online service from the world’s top equestrian shows? Wasn’t the idea to introduce the sport to a greater number of people, rather than to those already committed? Who’s going to pay 50 euro, or even ten euro, to “drop in” on a new sport just out of curiosity? Nobody, is the answer.
Have you ever heard anyone say: “Handball? I wonder what that’s like? I’ll pay ten euro just to find out.”? Of course not. So why should we expect soccer or rugby or golfing fans to do the same in order to watch show jumping for half an hour?
The next question is this: if a media plan had been vigorously pursued during the last decade to keep equestrian sport prominently displayed on tv screens and in cost-free online web streaming, would the IOC now be calling it “inaccessible and irrelevant to a wide variety of nations and viewing publics”?
Almost certainly not. A large and enthusiastic viewing public would quickly become familiar with the different disciplines and the rules – as they did back in the 1960s and ’70s, when equestrian sport was an almost nightly prime time tv feature. That’s the way it works: very few people understood the rules of snooker until tv stations took the sport out of the smokey back parlours of pubs and into people’s living rooms.
The same did not happen with our sport. It simply disappeared from tv screens. Nobody did anything about it. It just drifted away.
Now we face the unthinkable – beach volleyball will remain an Olympic sport, while show jumping, dressage and eventing may not.
Have we ourselves to blame? Are the riders to blame? Or are the national and international federations the ones we should hold responsible?