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?
I’m just a civilian who loves all things equestrian. My perception is that this is a prohibitively expensive sport where success is hugely influenced by breeding rather than training. While it is gorgeous it somehow doesn’t fit in with the ‘anyone can participate on equal footing’ objective. If push comes to shove, less elite sports may be prioritized.
When you consider the number of kids on horses relative to the accessibility of a bobsled track, ski jumping facility, etc; equestrian sports well deserve to be in the Olympics.
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No olympic sport is cheap, all of the athletes spend big bucks to get where they are, all have coaches that charge big bucks, need I go on?
Let’s not just sit back and let this happen. We need to gather our army and fight back. And if the FEI doesn’t like it, we should replace it with another organisation who will promote our sport not just for future Olympics, but to get it back on our TV channels and accessible for us all. tonight Andy Murray won SPOTY and deservedly so, but Nick Skelton was never going to win it. just like Charlotte Dujardin was never going to win after 2012, because we have allowed our sport to become so inaccessible that it is now viewed as elitist, despite the reality being very different. But if we are worried that we will be dropped from the Olympics, and dropped from the TV, we should be more worried that if some get their way we will also,be excluded from using our public roads too and only arena riding will be all,that is left to us. Time to,wake up!
I love equestrian sport. Let me get that out there first. However, this whole article is about how one sport shouldn’t be downgraded yet you’re talking about other Olympic sports not being as important? Aren’t you doing the exact same thing that you’re chastising the FEI and the IOC for?
As for having to pay to watch equestrian sport, we have to pay for Sky Sports, BT Sports etc. To watch football/rugby, so this is pretty much the same thing.
All sports should be treated the same and shouldn’t be classified as ‘more important’ than others.
I think our main point, Alisia, was that someone was able to take a beach game and turn it into an Olympic sport, whereas with equestrian we have shown no inspired management that would have ensured we remained equal with other sports in Olympic importance. Maybe if we hired the people who managed beach volleyball over the last ten years, things might have been better.
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The FEI is missing the boat by not promoting vaulting as an Olympic sport. It’s spectacular, athletic, musical and artistic … It has all the elements that are loved about gymnastics and figure skating, plus horses. This could be marketing genius if it’s promoted at the highest level!
The cost of any sport at this level is prohibitive without sponsors or personal finance. To single one sport out over another is hypocrisy. What other changes is the IOC demanding besides a reduction in riders and eliminating the right of dropping the lowest score? Is the IOC finally caving to the welfare of horses who are spurred bloody, rapped, rollkeured until their tongues turn blue? That’s the real story! Get at the core.
Beach volleyball remaining an Olympic sport is unthinkable? It is so much more accessible to the general public than equestrian sport, especially now with the majority of the population living in large urban centres. Anyone who has sat on the highway in rush hour trying to get out of the city to the stable knows how difficult it can be,
I played at a national level beach volleyball for years and was privy to the available programs for young and elite athletes, all of which were offered at a fraction of the cost of riding/owning a horse.
While I agree that equestrian sport deserves to keep its spot, I also believe that the onus is on the organizations we support to push for more awareness and availability. Not everyone will be able to afford top coaches and a string of horses on their way to the Olympics, but surely this isn’t a requirement to appreciate the sport for what it is. Much like King Campbell mentioned above, the lack of accessibility for bobsled, skeleton, etc. doesn’t lessen its popularity as an Olympic sport because it’s easy for anyone watching to understand.
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