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Will Connell on the Olympic format: “If you are not being heard, then change how you are shouting”

Tuesday, 11 January 2022
Interview

Photo © Libby Law Photography “I sat beside the arena watching the jumping in Tokyo – just like I did in Rio, London, Hong Kong and Athens, and frankly, I did not enjoy it as much as I did at those other events,” USEF’s Sport Director Will Connell says about his Olympic experience. Photo © Libby Law Photography.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

To World of Showjumping, USEF’s Sport Director Will Connell shares his thoughts on the discussions about the Olympic format, the FEI voting system and how the showjumping community should avoid becoming short-sighted.

 

Be proactive

At the FEI Hybrid General Assembly in November 2021, national federations voted on the proposal for the qualification system for the 2024 Olympic Games – 81 NFs were in favour and 15 against – as well as on the much-debated Olympic format of three horse-and-rider combinations per team, with 70 NFs voting in favour and 30 against. “We supported teams of four and that is the road we want to go at,” Connell tells about USEF’s point of view. “An important factor to keep in mind is that there wasn’t a viable alternative for teams of four. There was a sort of outlined proposal from the EEF, but it had not been discussed nor checked against the IOC’s requirements. However, we did go from ten or eleven nations previously voting against teams of three to 30, and that is a significant step forward if you look at it in terms of politics. Maybe some of us should have been more proactive in 2020 looking at teams of four for Paris, but we were where we were when we went to Antwerp.”

“People can rightly say that the FEI said they would look at Tokyo and they didn’t,” Connell continues. “However, at the same time, some of us could have been more proactive; the IJRC could have been more proactive, NFs that care about teams of four could have done more in coming up with an alternative system. Going to the General Assembly in November, saying we want teams of four, but we are not sure how we are going to get there, played right into the hands of people who wanted teams of three – because there was no alternative. Let’s be realistic; that is what happened.”

We have to find a way back to teams of four with a drop score for Los Angeles and Brisbane; that is where we have to be.

“What was achieved through the discussion though, was a real acknowledgement by the FEI that we have to start the process for Los Angeles early and that is a big step forward,” Connell explains. “Also, let’s not forget that Paris is very different to Tokyo: Most people have their horses in Europe, so there will be no travel issues for them, plus the climate is horse friendly. For Los Angeles and Brisbane, it will again be a long travel and a hot climate. Therefore, the long game is the important game.”

“I sat beside the arena watching the jumping in Tokyo – just like I did in Rio, London, Hong Kong and Athens, and frankly, I did not enjoy it as much as I did at those other events,” Connell continues to detail about his Olympic experience. “There are many that believe that what happened in Tokyo in jumping impacted horse welfare and I do agree with them. There is pressure of not having a drop score, and I do think that teams of four safeguard horse welfare better than teams of three. However, we also need to consider the climate and the travel. I think the FEI does have a good track record when it comes to horse welfare and now that we are with teams of three, we have to be very clear as we look at the rules, the MERs [Editor’s note: Minimum Eligibility Requirements], qualifications, all that, so that we ensure that those who end up in Paris, are capable of jumping those fences. We need to sit down and look at the rules and at the same time we need to look forward to the future Olympics. We have to find a way back to teams of four with a drop score for Los Angeles and Brisbane; that is where we have to be.”

Define involvement

With 32 of the 136 FEI affiliated national federations currently [Editor's note: Numbers from December 2021] having zero horses registered, and 20 between one to five horses, an important question is how the welfare of the horses can be safeguarded within the FEI framework as all nations have the same vote. “It is quite a statement to say that because a nation doesn’t have horses registered, they don’t take a proactive approach to horse welfare,” Connell reflects.

I think it is really easy to say that nations not involved in the Olympics should not get to vote – but how do you define involvement?

“Where do you draw the line? Can a nation that currently has two riders doing really well at 1.50m level and by Paris can be jumping 1.60m, but have never been to the Olympics before, get a vote? How do you make the rules meet in the middle? I think it is really easy to say that nations not involved in the Olympics should not get to vote – but how do you define involvement? The FEI gets a huge income from the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and all national federations benefit from that funding, because it is a significant part of the FEI’s budget. I am sure that the income supports work in many areas. So, are NFs only involved by sending riders? I know there are smaller nations that voted against teams of three, who have never been and are unlikely to have anyone at the Olympics in the near future.”

A complex issue

“I believe the FEI is still a fair democracy, and the issue with the voting system is complex,” Connell says. “We have to remember that the system at the General Assembly has already changed for the better. All the debate used to be around the GA, whereas now we have a whole day where rules and topics are discussed. It is a great step forward, as it allows people to express different opinions. However, I think we can do a far better job in presenting to all nations.”

“The current voting system has survived the test of time,” Connell continues. “It is not just voting on the Olympics; it is voting on a myriad of things. Often, people are impacted not necessarily in the face of it, but further down the road.”

Sitting down and looking at alternative voting systems is good governance.

“Sitting down and looking at alternative voting systems is good governance,” Connell points out when asked if equestrians should consider a weighted voting system, which many other sports have introduced.

“With the horse being a part of our sport, it is sometimes very difficult to draw distinct lines – you can be up one day and down the next. The FEI had no option than to follow the rules in place during the 2021 General Assembly in Antwerp,” he says.

Make it work

“I hear the top riders and I have huge respect for them, but I don’t think there is a way to get back to teams of four for Paris. We are where we are, and now we have to make this system work for the 2024 Games,” Connell says. “We need to put our energy in: 1) making it work for Paris and 2) getting it changed for Los Angeles. We have to bring everyone together and focus on making Paris work, while in every conversation saying, ‘yes, we will make Paris work, but we have to start the discussion for Los Angeles now, because we want this sorted once and for all’.”

We need to put our energy in: 1) making it work for Paris and 2) getting it changed for Los Angeles.

“We shouldn’t just stamp our feet now, but do what we can to keep the debate for Los Angeles going,” Connell continues. “The worst scenario is that the top riders stop supporting the Olympics – and that would be really bad. We have to keep our top athletes wanting to go to the Olympics and our top owners wanting to send their horses. We want the Olympics to be the very best of our sport and entertain equestrian enthusiasts as well as those who are not – like in London, where the stands were full of people who had never seen horses before.”

The worst scenario is that the top riders stop supporting the Olympics – and that would be really bad.

While “making it work” sounds similar to the mantra used ahead of Tokyo, Connell believes that things are different now. “I think two things happened,” he says. “First, I think we were not really listened to over certain aspects on Tokyo – when it came to rules and running the individuals before the teams and some of the MERs, but I think people are listening now. The Sports Forum is all about that, and the FEI has been very clear that these topics are up for discussion. Second, let’s not forget that Tokyo came on the back of a pandemic and no one predicted that in 2016. The stronger nations were perhaps able to prepare more effectively than some of the nations that had not been to the Olympics before and had very little access to competitions or had few athletes to choose from. I am not excusing what happened, but I think it is a factor. I do think the door is more open now than it was in the build-up for Tokyo.”

A lot needs addressing in April

Connell is of the opinion that the horse welfare issues related to the Tokyo Games have not been adequately dealt with. “A lot of that needs addressing at the Sports Forum in April,” he says. “The only thing that has been approved so far is the qualification system, so the rules – whether it will be teams followed by individuals, or individuals followed by teams, lengths and heights of the course, MERs – all that goes to the 2022 General Assembly. There are many aspects around horse welfare that can still be addressed. I think these issues are where we really need the help and support from the top riders, grooms, vets, coaches, course designers – all those who can look at the issue of how we can safeguard the welfare of the horse. As an example, should the ground jury have in their hands to pull people out, or shouldn’t they? The welfare of the horse is being discussed a lot, so let’s really look into every aspect of what we mean by that.”

The welfare of the horse is being discussed a lot, so let’s really look into every aspect of what we mean by that.

“The guiding light on the possible consequences of horse welfare issues not being addressed adequately is what happened with the modern pentathlon,” Connell continues. “I would say that the FEI and the showjumping community are in a completely different place than the UIPM [Editors note:  Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, the governing body of modern pentathlon]. The UIPM should have taken action a lot earlier, but they didn’t. I hope we as a community can come together and look at the issues we had. There are still risks when it comes for Paris if you consider the presentation of the sport: If the picture comes to more riders pulling up and thus damaging the team competition, that is a consequence of teams of three versus teams of four. We have to consider the presentation of the sport, how the non-equestrian media picks up on it, as well as what goes on in social media. For Los Angeles, we should focus on having teams of four as we will have a challenging climate and a long travel for the horses.”

I believe we should keep the fight going and do everything we can to address horse welfare.

“No, absolutely not,” Connell answers when asked if the FEI has prioritized IOC’s demands over horse welfare. “The FEI is duty bound as a governing body to find a balance between all the factors, that is what they are there to do. There are some that say the FEI has not respected horse welfare, there are others who say we should make the sport more exciting with more flags like the IOC wants. The FEI has to tread the path of being politicians and it is like leading a party; they will make decisions you like, and they will make decision you don’t like, that is the FEI’s job. Do I agree with teams of three? No. However, we have the option of walking away or keep fighting. I believe we should keep the fight going and do everything we can to address horse welfare.”

What if we’re out?

“The international federations would lose a big part of their income and that would impact their ability to train officials for example – which again impacts solidarity, as well as their ability to fund and run professional headquarters which in turn could start to undermine the professional governance of the sport,” Connell says when asked on his thoughts around the possibility of equestrian sports being left out of the Olympic family.

I have not been in any meetings with the IOC, so I cannot say how the FEI fights our corner.

“We have to remember that showjumping is not just a sport, it is an industry and a business,” Connell says about the different disciplines.  “While the impact on dressage and eventing could be quite severe, I think showjumping probably would change only in terms of the Nations Cup events.”

“However, you are always going to have kids who want to ride ponies,” Connell continues. “It is an interesting dilemma. I have not been in any meetings with the IOC, so I cannot say how the FEI fights our corner.”

Change how you’re shouting

“We have to remember that even though the athletes are a vital part of the sport, they are not the only part,” Connell says on the fact that the majority of the riders feel like their opinions are not being heard. “If you are not being heard, then change how you are shouting.”

“If you look at how the EEF has come together and how significant its lobby now is, I think the riders should take that into consideration,” Connell points out. “The EEF has developed into a very strong community and maybe the other continental groups need to look at that; the riders, the owners, the event organisers, the licensed officials.”

It would be a really simplistic view to say that the riders are not being listened to.

“It would be a really simplistic view to say that the riders are not being listened to. At the General Assembly in Antwerp, I think some federations got caught out, they didn’t think it through: If the proposed qualification system is only for teams of three, that means the system is not changing. Perhaps the FEI could have been a little bit more open there. However, I have been around long enough, so I saw it coming,” Connell closes off. 

 

No reproduction without written permission, copyright © World of Showjumping.com



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