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A “golden ticket” to ranking points: Destination Villeneuve-Loubet

Monday, 22 June 2020
FEI Tribunal

 

“The reality was however that the Villeneuve-Loubet Events were not typical CSI2* events and all those participating would have been aware.”

 

***

 

The quote above belongs to the FEI, and can be found among the many submissions to the FEI Tribunal in the recent case concerning the annulment of world and Olympic ranking points collected by a small group of riders at a string of CSI2* events in Villeneuve-Loubet, France, during December 2019 and January 2020. Two of these riders – Romania’s Andrea Herck and Sri Lanka’s Mathilda Karlsson, the latter alongside the Sri Lanka Equestrian Association – appealed the annulment, seeking to have the points reinstated. Last week, the Tribunal dismissed Herck and Karlsson’s appeals – and at the core of the decision is the integrity of the sport. 

 

“The Tribunal finds that the integrity of the sport and the rankings supersedes the interests of two individual riders to keep their ranking points.” 

 

Rewind to December 2019 and January 2020. In less than two months, there were seven weekends of CSI2* events at Villeneuve-Loubet. Each event had three world ranking Group D classes per weekend, two of which were FEI-approved additions made after the deadline for definite entries – with one exception [for one of the events, the additions were made four days before the date of definite entries]. 

Although the schedules listed a total of twenty athletes to be invited, each of the 21 ranking classes only had between five to nine competitors. As the sixteen best in a world ranking Group D competition earn points, on a scale from 50 down to 5, all athletes in the ranking classes in Villeneuve-Loubet received points regardless of their result – except in cases where the horse-and-rider combination had been eliminated or had retired. Whereas the points for the Olympic ranking follow a scale and get reduced in accordance with the number of competitors that finish the class, the world ranking has no similar system. As a result, the athletes in Villeneuve-Loubet earned full world ranking points despite competing against a handful of other riders [ – even with a score of 28 penalties].

During this short period of time, the Villeneuve-Loubet events helped a small group of riders push considerably up on the world ranking. One of them was Andrea Herck – son of the organiser in Villeneuve-Loubet. Another rider that benefitted from competing in Villeneuve-Loubet was Mathilda Karlsson. In December, Karlsson jumped her horse Chopin VA at all three events. She made a swift climb up on the Olympic ranking for South East Asia & Oceania, to sit second as the qualifying process closed on 31st of December 2019 – securing a ticket to Tokyo for Sri Lanka. As the FEI illustrated to the Tribunal, 56% of Karlsson’s total Olympic ranking points during the twelve-month Olympic ranking period were earned at the three Villeneuve-Loubet events in December 2019. [About Karlsson’s qualification, the FEI also noted that: “(…) following the removal of the Longines Ranking Competitions added after the Definite Entries Deadline, only 10 of Ms. Karlsson’s other 2019 results counted because in all other 238 competitions she competed in 2019, her placing were not high enough to obtain Olympic Ranking/Longines Ranking points.”]

 

A complete transformation

 

When the FEI announced its decision to annul the points, it was pointed out that the updated schedules – which contained the additional world ranking classes – had been "mistakenly approved". The FEI stated that the approval was contrary to the FEI’s General Regulations art. 110.2.3, which reads as follows: “The Schedules approved and published by the FEI shall be binding as if they were incorporated within the relevant Rules and/or Regulations. The FEI will not approve any Schedules when the closing dates for Entries have already passed.” 

In the Tribunal proceedings it remained undisputed that the FEI had approved the amended schedules with the additional ranking classes. However, the parties disagreed on whether the FEI had the right to do so under their rules and regulations – or whether it was normal practice by the FEI to approve such amendments to schedules after the deadline for definite entries had passed. 

To the Tribunal, Herck and Karlsson submitted that the FEI’s alleged mistake in approving the schedule did in fact not exist but was rather a structural policy of the FEI by which the FEI clearly departed from its own regulations. Herck and Karlsson referred to several events that in their opinion had undergone similar modifications as the ones in Villeneuve-Loubet. Their claim was rejected by the FEI, which stated that only two of these events were examples of a competition being added after the deadline for definite entries – and one of these concerned was another event by the organiser in Villeneuve-Loubet in January 2019. As to the other modifications, the FEI argued that these did not have a material impact on the event. 

The Tribunal agreed with the FEI and found that the changes that had been made to the schedules completely transformed the nature of the Villeneuve-Loubet events “(...) by instantly tripling the total number of Longines Ranking and Olympic Ranking points available (…). In their decision, the Tribunal stated that:

 

“This can certainly not be considered as a minor change, but a change that impacted the nature and the status of those respective events.”

 

The FEI also pointed out that the timing of the changes made to the schedules had ensured that the organiser could effectively handpick which riders participated and which one could not. The impact this had, was made even more significant due to the new Invitation System that was ready to be launched in February as well as the deadline for earning points for the Olympic ranking – set to 31st of December 2019. [As documented in an article on this website earlier this year, riders at the Villeneuve-Loubet events in question made massive climbs on the world rankings no. 227, 228 and 229 – some of them moving 1611, 714 and 650 spots up in a period of two months, prior to the launch of the new FEI Invitation System.]

 

Fiction or facts?

 

Furthermore, the FEI listed a number of factors that in their opinion amounted to “justified circumstances” to annul the points – within the meaning of the General Regulations art. 112.3. A report from the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU), which was the result of an investigation into the Villeneuve-Loubet events, had identified several troubling aspects as well as rule violations. 

From Herck and Karlsson’s side the report was subject of criticism. In their opinion the report was not finalised, none of the ECIU’s allegations had been proven and the points therein were only “fiction”. They claimed that the ECIU not only had carried out a very superficial investigation, but also failed to provide evidence for its allegations. 

Similar to a previous case – AZE-NF vs. FEI, Final Tribunal Decision of 15 February 2012 – the Tribunal found that the ECIU report on the Villeneuve-Loubet events did lack substantiated proof, and that it was not conclusive with regard to the allegation that was related to the payment of prize money. 

The distribution of prize money in Villeneuve-Loubet was among the factors pointed out by the FEI to the Tribunal. The FEI listed that the organiser apparently paid prize money owed to riders to himself due his unexplained status as a “lessee” of the horse; that there were highly irregular arrangements whereby prize money was forfeited by riders in exchange for a future option to buy a horse; and that a rider was asked to forfeit prize money in return for the organiser agreeing to accept the rider’s late entry.

Another factor emphasised by the FEI, was the characterisation of the events made by the organiser to French riders as “invitational shows” – that were to be considered as “training shows” without prize money, but with ranking points. Furthermore, a review of the entries for the December 2019 events showed “a strange pattern” of no athletes being entered by the deadline for definite entries – with only one exception in Herck’s case. 

 

The “golden ticket”

 

Furthermore, the FEI pointed out to the Tribunal that the organiser also had listed a somewhat “bizarre selection of foreign NFs invited for the reasons that he had a “closer relationship” with these” – however, with no further proof to this claim. To the Tribunal, the FEI listed some of these NFs – Croatia (CRO), Cyprus (CYP), Georgia (GEO), Moldova (MDA), North Macedonia (MKD) – which had never had an athlete participate in Villeneuve-Loubet previously. The FEI stated that: “(…) there was no apparent logic, financial or otherwise, in inviting countries such as the Republic of North Macedonia (with 4 registered Jumping athletes), Moldova, Georgia and Malta (each with just 2 registered Jumping athletes), other than to limit the potential participants both in terms of numbers and quality hereby boosting the chances of the other participants to earn ranking points.”

In addition, when reviewing the schedules of events held in Villeneuve-Loubet in the proceeding years – 2016, 2017, 2018 and March 2019 – the FEI found that the number of invited ahletes ranged from 300 to unlimited. 

The FEI emphasised that:

 

“The role of the FEI as the international governing body was to ensure the integrity of both ranking lists and to ensure that they are not manipulated in order to give certain Athletes an unfair advantage.” 

 

To this the FEI added, that it was in the interest of all jumping athletes that the Olympic and world rankings were “protected from manipulation”. 

While the FEI did not deny the significant impact the decision had on the appellants, they pointed out that the reality was that the Villeneuve-Loubet events were not typical CSI2* events and that all those participating would have been aware. The FEI stated that it was the FEI Secretary General’s right and statutory duty to do what was right for the FEI community as a whole and not just to preserve the results of a very small pool of handpicked athletes. The FEI submitted that: 

 

“The Appellants were among a small pool of Athletes that were effectively handpicked by the Organiser to participate in the Villeneuve- Loubet Events and given the “golden ticket” to access the valuable Longines Ranking/Olympic Ranking competitions.” 

 

During the hearing, the FEI stressed that Herck and Karlsson were not at fault or wrongdoing – but that their points were not validly earned. The FEI’s decision to annul the points was not arbitrary, but rather necessary to assure fair and equal conditions for all riders in the world and was taken under justified circumstances. 

The Tribunal also clearly expressed that the riders themselves bore no fault for the violations and did not violate the rules themselves. However, the Tribunal established that the riders had no legitimate expectation to keep the points. The Tribunal concluded that the integrity of the sport and the rankings had to supersede the interests of two individual riders to keep their ranking points – dismissing the appeals from Herck and Karlsson. 

 

Internal investigation suggested

 

Of interest in the decision is also that the Tribunal took note of Herck’s serious allegations regarding organisers that in his opinion had broken the FEI rules by requesting athletes to buy VIP tables for their invitations to events. To the Tribunal, Herck listed several events of this character as well as organisers that had added the possibility for riders to earn certificates of capability only after the deadlines for definite entries. Herck claimed that “(…) these were a “10,000 times more” important changes to the schedule and opened the door for manipulation of events as important as the Olympic Games or the European Championships”. In this regard, the Tribunal encouraged Herck – or any other person with such knowledge and evidence – to report such incidents to the FEI. The Tribunal stated that: 

 

“In fact, the FEI should encourage the equestrian community to report any cases where they believe FEI Rules and Regulations have been violated in any way.” 

 

The Tribunal also emphasised how the FEI should investigate wrongdoings internally and put procedures in place to ensure that rules and regulations are followed by the FEI itself.

The next weeks will tell whether or not the final word has been spoken in this case. Herck and Karlsson have twenty-one days to appeal the Tribunal’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. 

 

Read the full decision here.

 


 

Text © written by World of Showjumping

 



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