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John Madden: A man on a mission with a clear-cut message

Friday, 28 October 2016

John Madden, FEI 1st Vice President and Chair of the Jumping Committee. Photo (c) FEI/Richard Juilliart. John Madden, FEI 1st Vice President and Chair of the Jumping Committee. Photo (c) FEI/Richard Juilliart.

“Change, or be changed. That has been the message,” John Madden – FEI 1st Vice President and Chairman of the FEI Jumping Committee – says when speaking to World of Showjumping about the necessity of altering the format of jumping at the Olympic Games.

Madden is a man on a mission. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has ambitions to make the Olympic Games better than they already are, in order to help the Games stay important world-wide as well as to make the Olympics relevant for a younger generation – all laid out in the Olympic Agenda 2020.[1] Speaking on behalf of the FEI, Madden says; “and we would like to help them with that. The FEI takes its position as a leading International Federation seriously.”

That’s no small mission, even for a man of Madden’s caliber. Now he, and the rest of the FEI, wants to transform jumping at the Games. “We want to make it more important, and we have had successful people help us look at how we can improve our sport. We have been very lucky to be able to take advice from such an organization as the IOC. Success brings success,” Madden states. “We have looked at what needs to be repaired, and we have consulted experts both inside and outside our sport. We have had open and critical debate through two Sport Forums and a General Assembly session and multiple meetings with stakeholders, yielding a transparent and inclusive process. We have also looked towards the suggestions for other sports in regards to Agenda 2020.”

The most controversial part of the new concept, as suggested by the FEI, is probably the introduction of a team jumping competition where each team consists of three combinations, an active reserve and no drop score – rather than four horse-and-rider combinations with a drop score.

One to speak out against this suggested change is German legend Ludger Beerbaum, who at the Rio Olympics said: “The Olympics in Rio have proved that the format of having four per team could not be better. For the drama and excitement of the sport we want this roller coaster up and down, and not that everything is decided after one round. Leave it open until the end. On top of that we have the welfare issue. We have lost a few horses over the last days all this speaks completely for four riders. I speak from the bottom of my heart; it is absolutely wrong to change it to three.”

While Madden is very concerned with all opinions, contrary to Beerbaum, he is convinced that the new formula fits the bill for the future of our sport. “If people have the incorrect facts, they seem to be negative towards the proposal. But, when they educate themselves and understand it and consider all possible scenarios – then they are by and large positive,” Madden comments on those that have been skeptical about the suggested format-change.

So, what will it all look like if Madden and his people get their way?

First of all, there will be two separate events – first the event where the riders will jump for the individual medals and then team jumping where they will jump for the team medals.

Secondly – what has caused a bit of a stir, there will be only three riders competing on each team, plus one reserve and there will no longer be a drop-score in the team competition.

“Individually, the number of riders per team will be the same as today. Under today’s rules – which is something that has come from the IOC for all sports – only three out of four athletes from the same country can compete in the individual final, even if they are all qualified. With the proposed change, it is just the same as what we have today,” Madden says referring to the number of individual riders allowed to compete in the individual Olympic final.

“When one looks at today’s format, we have four riders and a reserve. The fifth rider, in reality, can just go home as soon as the first competition has begun. A key in our proposal, is to instead have three riders and three scores counting but with an active reserve,” Madden continues. “The reserve can be used in case of illness or injury – and maybe, although this needs to be approved – for strategic reasons.

“What this means is that we can better preserve horse welfare and have a more dramatic, understandable and equitable competition. An example would be that after the first round of the team competition, a horse that is unfit to compete the next day could be replaced with no disadvantage to the team. Today, in the same situation, a bad decision might be made to send the horse in or the team must compete at a disadvantage with no drop score.”

As to the drop-score, Madden has little positive to say. “The drop-score confuses everything. I totally agree that we need improved graphics and commentary to present the sport in a better way, but I have heard this for 35 years. I am very much in favor of bettering the presentation, but can the drop-score be presented in a good way? I don’t think so; I don’t see that.”

Later on in the conversation, Madden adds to prove his point; “We’ve had more Olympic Games with teams of three and no drop-score, than four with. Additionally, every sports marketing company has told us to get rid of the drop score.

“The fans of the drop score are partially right, it can be very dramatic. The problem is that the drama created is only appreciated if the fan is willing to commit to keeping score of every round for the duration of the event. We cannot expect in these modern times for our fans and potential fans to dedicate this level of commitment. They are right that “we” like it. It’s easier for us, but we need to concern ourselves with the 3.5 billion people watching the Olympics on TV. Name a successful sport in which the viewer can’t instantly know the score within seconds of tuning in?”

Further on to the new concept for the 2020 Olympic Games, the FEI proposal suggests 75 combinations for jumping – twenty teams of three, with twenty reserve combinations as well as fifteen individuals.  

The individual event will run over two days of competition, the first open to 75 combinations – which, as Madden points out, just like today will mean a maximum of three riders from each country. The thirty best individuals after the first day of competition, go through to the medal round – which will be the day of the individual final. All the riders will start on a score of zero in the final and, if tied, there will be a jump-off.

To put the individual event first, will – according to Madden – also prevent some riders from having an unintentional advantage. An example can be taken from this year’s Games, where the German and Canadian riders went into a jump-off for the team bronze medal and had to ride an extra round against the clock – whereas the rest of the horses had one racing round less in their bodies ahead of the individual final.

In addition, Madden points towards the fact that the IOC has been clear that they will not approve a concept where one event is used to qualify for another. Which is why the team competition will not be used to qualify for the individual competition anymore. “If it’s not separate, it will not be approved,” Madden says firmly. “So, we will have different athletes for different events.”

However, the controversy does not seem to lie there. It is the suggested format changes for the team competition that have caused the most discussion.

The FEI suggests for the first round of the team competition – that will be taking place two days after the individual event – should be open to 20 teams with three riders per team, with an active reserve and no drop-score. The Chefs d’Equipe can select any three of their four riders to take part in the first team competition, which potentially opens up for having different riders for this part of the event from those that competed individually. “So, the likelihood is that every strong jumping nation still will use four riders,” Madden comments on the proposed changes.

The ten best countries after the first round of team competition qualify for the second round, which will be the final. In case of a tie on penalties for teams placed 10th, the combined times of each team’s three riders will be the determining factor – just like it is in the Nations Cup Final. Also for the final, the Chefs d’Equipe may select any three of their four riders to take part – opening for changes on the team. A big change from the team competition as we know it today, is that all teams will start on zero penalties in the final. This is also similar to the format of the Nations Cup Final. “We have excellent experiences with this from the Furusiyya Final,” Madden says to back up the suggested change.

“It will for sure be easier to follow,” he continues. “We have consulted the proposal with marketing and sporting experts that have brought non-selling sports to become best-selling sports.”

The FEI also wants to change the concept of the Olympic jump-off. Three riders per team will take part in the jump-off, but only the team’s best score will count. “The team with the slowest combined time starts first. The starting order will then be adjusted during the jump-off, so that the leading team after each rotation of riders always starts last,” Madden explains. To ensure that there is time to get prepared properly, there will be a break of at least two to three minutes between rotations of riders.

Another suggested change, is to eliminate riders that reach a penalty score of sixteen. Riders who are eliminated from a round for something such as a fall or two refusals will be given a penalty score of 20. “This might help a lot of horses,” Madden explains pointing towards reducing the number of rounds that might cause bad images. “A good rider with a bad round will normally pull up anyway.”

However, an elimination from the individual competition does not exclude participation on a team – as the two events in the future will be completely separate. Furthermore, a rider eliminated in the first round of the team competition can still participate in the final should the country be qualified.

Not only the Olympic Games are about to change. The FEI are also coming up with a very similar proposal for the World Equestrian Games. While the concerns from stakeholders have tempered the speed in which the format for the WEG will changed, some changes are on the horizon. “The feedback we have received from our stakeholders regarding the WEG is strong. Some suggestions were pretty unanimous and those are where we are starting. We will propose that the speed round at the beginning be removed, scores carry for the entire week and that the horse and rider swap at the conclusion be removed. Our sport is truly about the horse and rider relationship in today’s technical courses; the rider swap portion has become outdated and risky to our stakeholders,” Madden says. Additionally, they are proposing the teams continue to have four riders, but that the reserve rider becomes an active reserve.

However, the continental championships – such as the European Championships – will remain untouched. The Nations Cups will also stay in their current format, with four riders on each team and a drop-score. “Jumping at the Olympics and at the World Equestrian Games is global. Jumping at the continental championships is more local, and we would like the national federations concerned to have a big say in what those championships should look like – we will not decide that on their behalf,” Madden explains.

As to whether or not it can become confusing for the followers of the sport that different team competitions have various formats, Madden remains unconcerned. “At the Olympic Games we have a team jumping competition. That is different from a Nations Cup. They are different competitions: The Olympic Games are once every four years, while the Nations Cups are on a weekly basis,” Madden says.

A long process in now coming towards the end for Madden. “We have been debating this for years, and it was one of the main subjects at this year’s FEI Sports Forum. We have looked at all the comments, and will have a final draft that will be voted on at the General Assembly in November. But, in the end it needs to be approved by the IOC.”

Like it or not, it is the IOC that will have the biggest say when it comes to the future of jumping at the Olympics. If the jumping community wants to be in Tokyo in 2020, chances are that it needs to give the IOC what the IOC wants. Otherwise it can be a wave and a goodbye.

And, what the IOC specifically wants are more flags at the Games. Within the jumping world, the fear is that this will attract a number of ‘under-developed’ nations and less experienced combinations – which again could create situations which would jeopardize the welfare of the horses as well as bad images for the sport. After all, as an inexperienced athlete jumping an Olympic 1.60-meter course on a horse is different from running 200 meters on your own two legs. But – according to Madden – those concerns will not be an issue as the FEI are working on a strict Certificate of Capability, which they expect to solve this dilemma. In the new Certificates of Capability, the focus will be on more specific requirements regulating how courses are built, addressing issues such as the degree of difficulty relating to lines and height and width of obstacles. FEI believes that addressing these issues will ensure that all horse and rider combinations at the Games will be capable of competing at that level. “That will be an honest and fair test. If all riders on the team have the Certificate of Capability they can compete. If the team can not meet that standard, they will not be able to field a team,” Madden says.

However, Madden is passionate about the opportunity that lies in opening up for more flags at the Games. “With twenty spots for the teams It will provide many more countries with a chance, especially in developing areas. Think about the opportunities that will create in these areas,” he closes off.



[1] The Olympic Agenda 2020 defines forty detailed recommendations towards what the future of the Olympic Movement will look like.

Text © World of Showjumping // Picture © FEI/Richard Juilliart

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