Today, dear readers, a very special treat. I am delighted to share with you the ruminations of journalist extraordinaire, Pippa Cuckson. I’m even more delighted to read her post and realize that she and I are on exactly the same page when it comes to the momentous events of last week in Switzerland. Sometimes, as a journalist toiling away in the vacuum that is a freelancer’s existence for at least 350 days a year, one begins to doubt one’s judgment. One’s confidence can be so shaken by the kinds of accusations that were tossed about on the floor of the GA last week, one may even come close to succumbing to the charming pressures of the one who rules the roost. Which is why it was critically important that there were enough of us sitting there at the GA last week, sharing glances of incredulity with one another as the events I’ve already reported on were unfolding, and realizing that we all saw the same thing, which is apparently very much not what most of the delegates around us were seeing.
Without further ado, here is Pippa’s guest post. Thank you Pippa, for sharing with us.
Pippa Cuckson: reflections on an FEI GA gone wild
I was amongst the small media presence at the FEI General Assembly in Montreux, where six of the scribblers had a total of more than 150 years experience in reporting FEI politics. The Thursday was certainly one of the most astonishing days any of us have sat through.
The strain on the faces of FEI senior personnel was evident earlier in the week, even in the jolly environment of the first night party where, prophetically, entertainment was provided by acrobats, fire-eaters and contortionists.
Yet by Thursday there was near-delirium as federations pleaded to reinstate a third term for Haya, after all.
Just days before, journalists around the world had been prodded to report that Haya would face calls to quit because of the doping and injuries crisis in endurance. Some – not lots, but some – national federations were briefing media that’s what they were going to ask for, oh yes, most definitely. Reporters didn’t need to make this stuff up – there is still enough shocking material about Middle East endurance riders and trainers, and the shameless behaviour of so-called officials who let them get away with it, to keep headlines going for months without resorting to invention.
But on the day, the federations we’d expected to pipe up changed their minds or lost their nerve. There are three main reasons why:
First, the petition for the third presidential term, started apparently by Taipei, was signed by 100 federations out of the FEI’s 132. It would have been salutary to pitch up in Montreux, having rehearsed your “Ma’am, with respect it’s time for you to go” speech but then find you have misread the mood. By not signing the petition you’d end up in an exposed minority – albeit a minority including Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland and Britain, the countries that have provided all but one of the reigning World, European and Olympic team and individual gold medallists in jumping, dressage and eventing, and so know just a little bit more than most about how the sporting wheels should go round.
The second mind-changing factor was that the Endurance Strategic Planning Group solutions for endurance were far stronger than anyone envisaged, as far away from a “cop-out” as it’s possible to get. That in itself would make any Haya-sceptic contemplate that if she’d got this component right, she maybe deserved to stick around till November 2014 after all.
And thirdly, anyone still thinking of mentioning conflict-of-interest issues in open forum would definitely have kept their lips zipped after a) the broadside delivered by Lord Stevens, who challenged accusations he might be incapable of independent thought, reminding delegates of his multiple successes in the libel courts; and b) the virtual tar-and-feathering of Malcolm MacDonald, president of the Jamaica federation who was starting to list who he thought shouldn’t be involved in the endurance clean-up when he was shouted down. After that the already truncated “question time” fell away; a cocktail party awaited, after all. (side note from Karen: a cocktail party hosted by, of all federations, the Swiss)
Those of us in the press tribune were certainly cheesed-off by repeated swipes about the media’s “negative” coverage of endurance. Guess what: if people stopped doing so many negative things then we would be able to report them. I also defy anyone to claim that the ESPG would have been convened at all, or have come up with strong proposals as quickly as it has which will reflect very well on somebody’s résumé, if the media had not kept chipping away. Folk who thought they might earn gold stars with the president by taking a pop at us might care to know that, in a candid press conference, Princess Haya herself said the coverage had been “fair” and brought the topic to a level where solutions had to be found.
When Haya does go, the sport will have to generate its own sponsorship. If the media have done anything to stop Middle Eastern endurance tarnishing the commercial appeal of all other equestrian sports, I make no apology for that.
And at a more fundamental level, someone has got to speak up for the horses. I made myself read every single Tribunal doping report, and now often have bad dreams about Sudan, a horse ridden for 160 km on etorphine, an opioid analgesic 3,000 times more potent than morphine. To date only a handful of federations have put their heads above the parapet; so until a lot more of the 127 or 128 remaining federations express similar concerns about welfare, I for one shall continue to flag up the injustices inflicted on all the other Sudans.
I have no idea whether Princess Haya will succumb to third-term frenzy; at the moment, she says Not. If she departs in 12 months she will be rightly feted for modernising the FEI, helping the emerging nations, generating spectacular sums of money and, better late than never, initiating endurance reform.
However, the nuances are now different from when a third-term was first mooted months ago, because endurance has now been forced onto the FEI’s very own agenda.
One unintended consequence could well be the Middle East’s withdrawal from the FEI sport, making welfare reforms less likely. More UAE rides this winter have already been scheduled as CENs, which it is reasonable to assume may not be run as strictly as FEI rides. In Newmarket, UK, it’s already rumoured that the string that arrives there from Dubai each summer for the European season will not be back in such numbers next year.
If, in three or four years, Middle East endurance is still a dirty word, that will permanently stain the legacy of whoever is FEI president from 2014-2018. Princess Haya quoted the ESPG’s Andrew Finding, who had concluded by saying Failure Is Not An Option. Those words can be interpreted several ways.