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Stephan Conter: “All I am asking for is an honest and open discussion where everyone is heard”

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Photo © Hippo Foto / Sharon Vandeput Stephan Conter. Photo © Hippo Foto / Sharon Vandeput.


Text © World of Showjumping



Conter’s open letter

At the beginning of July, Stephan Conter – CEO and founder of the Stephex Group – published an open letter to the FEI describing equestrianism’s governing body as a “dictatorial, anti-democratic and freedom-depriving federation that is detrimental to the equestrian community and the development of our sport.”

Even though Conter has his own interests to protect as organiser of Brussels Stephex Masters and Knokke Hippique, the Belgian businessman and entrepreneur is adamant that his criticism is part of a bigger picture. “I wrote the letter because I worry about our industry’s future,” Conter says. “That strict invitation rules apply to five- and four-star events is absolutely acceptable. We can all agree on that, as those are events for top sport,” Conter says. “Controlling who is going where at lower star levels can’t be justified the same way, because these shows differ in their nature from high-level events. In my opinion, the invitation rules are damaging to our industry and to the sport. Right now – with the pandemic – they even create an unlevel playing field for the athletes.”

The much-debated invitation rules

The new CSI invitation rules entered into force earlier this year. However, they have been centre of discussion for over four years. At the FEI Sports Forum in 2017, concerns were voiced as the new rules do not apply equally to all events – the Global Champions Tour (GCT) and the Global Champions League (GCL) are examples of events that have been granted exceptions, as well as FEI’s own flagship series – the Nations Cup and the World Cup.

In 2017, it was said that the rules would limit open sport, as the FEI regulated the OC’s invitations down from 30% to 20%. It was also said that while reducing invitations from 30 to 20% for some organisers, the FEI made better conditions for others – such as the GCT and GCL. [1]

One of those that spoke against these varieties back in 2017 was Stephan Conter, who asked the FEI to apply the same rules for all organisers.

In short, the CSI invitation rules apply to shows where the number of athletes is restricted – and require them to be invited based on their performances. For example, for five-star shows, 60% of the invitations follow the world ranking list in descending order, 20% of the invitations are reserved for home riders while 20% are left for the organisers. The percentages differ from star-level to star-level, as per the chart in the rules. [2]

The online invitation system, also launched earlier this year, allows the FEI to control that the requested percentages are followed.

A discriminatory system

“Over the past years, rule exceptions have given some organisers the freedom to reach for new heights. This has contributed greatly to the growth of our sport,” Conter explains. “However, we have to ask: Why are some organisers granted more freedom than others? This is discriminating. There are about 20 to 30 organising committees in Europe that would like to put on beautiful shows, and together we have proved that there is a market for that. Why are the rules not the same for everyone?”

Protectionism towards FEI products

“To me, it seems as if the FEI works from a point of protectionism,” Conter says. “Over the last six years, the FEI has shut the door for all new sponsors. Sponsors are hard to come across, so when we do find them, they should be welcomed – despite possible competitive markets. I don’t see how using the same sponsor for several different series is going to help the sport grow or increase prize money. On the contrary. I am a big fan of the Nations Cup and World Cup series and believe they have to be protected, but this is not the way forward.”

Destructive for the growth of the industry

“We have to keep in mind that two- and three-star shows serve a different purpose than the higher-level events,” Conter explains. “These shows are a much needed platform for everyone; for professionals to produce horses and help their students develop, for semi-professionals to compete and for amateurs to enjoy the sport. Much of the business and the trade is done at these shows. Restricting the freedom to participate at lower star level events is – in my opinion – damaging for the riders, trainers and the trade, as well as for the organisers.”

“Prior to the new invitation rules, riders had freedom to build a show program based on how their horses were feeling and which shows suited them as well as their students,” Conter points out. “Now they have to ask the FEI where they can show.”

Conter points out how a bigger perspective is needed when thinking about the invitation system. “Jumping is first and foremost a sport – but it is an exceptionally expensive sport which requires that riders and show stables run a business alongside it,” he says. “This is crucial in order to finance doing the sport we love. Politics should help businesses thrive, and growth should be encouraged. Instead, we are in danger of political aspects ruining the entire industry. As a community we should stand together and defend our livelihoods.”

“One of the consequences of the FEI’s strict regime will be that the turnover in the industry will go down dramatically,” Conter says. “In a global perspective, the new invitation system will push away clients from outside Europe.”

Shrinking the choice

“Furthermore, the choice that riders have had until now will shrink dramatically, when only a few venues with permanent facilities will be able to continue. Tour organisers that due to their structure have restrictions on the number of invitations will face huge challenges. Shows like my own, or Jumping Dinard or Saut Hermès, more exclusive build-up events that are a huge success with the general public – can’t survive financially with rules like this.”

Creating an unlevel playing field in post-lockdown

“In combination with the attempt to keep the world ranking points rolling post-lockdown, the new CSI invitation rules are also creating an unlevel playing field for the athletes”, Conter points out. “What is happening now is actually really dangerous. At the moment, there are only a few shows per weekend, and partly because of the new invitation rules it is nearly impossible to get in at three-star level and upwards. At three-star level, riders from the top 100 now take up the invitations of those ranked below who used to go to these shows. Only a small group of riders is showing and get the chance to earn points. This is not fair, and we can’t say we have a level field of play under these circumstances. In fact, it is discriminating and there is absolutely no logic to it. The sad truth is that for the rest of the year there won’t be enough shows for everyone, and therefore we should stop giving ranking points. The FEI needs to react quickly here.”

Attempting dialogue – a waste of time?

Conter calls for a clear and honest dialogue between the FEI Headquarters and the stakeholders. “When it comes to riders being involved in politics, we have to respect the complex nature of their profession and understand that their time is limited,” Conter points out. “Professional riders are all entrepreneurs with 100 things on their minds – they have no time for politics. In my opinion, the riders should make sure that they have a strong representative – for example the president of the International Jumping Riders Club, someone who is full on for the sport and ready to defend their common interest. All stakeholders’ opinions have to come through and be listened to – we should not tolerate being ignored. In my opinion, there should be a working group. The problem is, that based on previous experience, no one is interested to take part as the attendants are left feeling like they are wasting their time and not taken seriously. I am not asking for perfection though, all I am asking for is an honest and open discussion where everyone is heard,” Conter closes off.




[1] According to the Global Champions Tour invitation rules, 30% of the number of athletes participating will be taken in descending order from the world ranking while another 30% will be [GCL] team athletes taken from the world ranking’s top 250. Furthermore, the organising committee can select 30% of the athletes from their pool of [GCL] team riders without following the ranking. The remaining 10% of the invitations go to the home riders, and also include an FEI Wild Card. 


[2] Event LevelAthletes from the Longines RankingAthletes selected by the host NFOC Invitations

          CSI5*                              60%                                                            20%                                             20%

          CSI4*                              50%                                                            25%                                             25%

          CSI3*                              40%                                                            30%                                             30%

          CSI2*                              30%                                                            30%                                             40%




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