As my good friend and regular blog reader Jenn W. said to someone last week, if there was anything worse than letting me into the Olympic Qualification meetings at the FEI GA last week, it was NOT letting me into the meeting.  You might have seen my ‘disarmament’ confession from the GA last week, when I lost my composure after HRH personally apologized to me for the last minute closure of the meeting. Now that I’ve sewn my arms back on, something about that apology is nagging at me. HRH explained the last minute decision as follows: that it became clear leading up to the GA that there were going to be a number of appeals to change the Olympic qualifications, and that in the interest of not discouraging those nations’ delegates from speaking up, the media was shut out.

Weeeeeeelll, I tried that explanation on for size, and concluded that it doesn’t fit. We’ve known for MONTHS that the Americas in particular were in an uproar about the qualifications. It wasn’t a last minute note sent up to the Bureau with a stink bomb warning on it. The Bureau knew since April that there would be noise.  Also, in the past months and weeks I have received countless emails and comments on my blog in support of what I’ve been writing on the topic: from Mexico, Brazil, Central America, and of course from Canada. If there were delegates representing the most unhappy region of the world who were hesitant to speak up in front of me, I challenge anyone to name one.

I may not have been allowed to attend that meeting, but as promised I did some nosy Parkering around and found out a few things for myself. And as I said, dear FEI, if I have any of this wrong, it is possibly because I was not allowed to listen to the discussions first hand.  Here are a couple of things I learned the good old ‘investigative journalist’ way:

Probably the most interesting bit of second hand info I received from the meeting was that not a whole lot took place of material importance. Rather, the face offs and compromises took place in other meetings, and in whispered conversations right up until the very day of the GA itself.

Regarding the team allocations, which (sorry Trond but I still totally disagree with you) DO TAKE AWAY ONE QUALIFICATION OPPORTUNITY from every country in the Americas other than Brazil, there was apparently not a hope in hell of budging the FEI one inch. All three Olympic disciplines were going to get one less qualification slot from the Pan Ams. End of story. But here’s the interesting part. At the 2013 IOC Meeting in Buenos Aires this fall, equestrian sports (and maybe even dressage in particular) lost a bit of ground in the rankings compared to other core sports, for this reason: not enough flags. As I already pointed out in a post last month,  the way the dressage qualifications have been laid out for Rio, there will be more individual spots given away than ever before. And that’s the number one easiest way to get more flags on the start list, right?

Now, if some of us tend to conjure up images of King Kong when we think of the FEI, then the IOC is Godzilla. If the IOC says ‘MORE GLOBAL!’, the only possible answer is ‘yes Sir! Please don’t step on me Sir!’ HRH is a member of the IOC and she attended the meeting in Buenos Aires. If that is the message she came away with, the decisions in dressage look more explicable, and slightly less (slightly, mind you) like the countries affected have been singled out for special treatment. It also relieves the FEI of some of the responsibility.

So with a pigs-might-fly likelihood of getting our Pan Am qualification back, Canada and other countries of the Americas wisely shifted gears and took a new tack. I don’t know this, but I imagine there was support for the proposed changes to the individual qualifications from some other smaller nations in other parts of the world, including Europe.

I won’t bore you with the details, but if you are curious to see what was eventually approved and voted on with a flurry of green cards held in the air, you can look at page 10 of the document outlining main decisions from the GA. The most meaningful change for Canada and for other countries with less plentiful CDI calendars than you find in Western Europe, is the halving of the number of results to count on the Olympic Ranking list, from eight to four. Because the Olympic ranking is inexplicably based on cumulative results and not an average, the number ‘eight’ can be problematic for some athletes, including Canadians. If you have, say, only six results that count, that pretty much assures you a spot near the bottom of the ranking. If you can’t get four decent qualifying scores in the year before the Olympics, well you probably don’t deserve to qualify for the Olympics. But four is definitely advantageous to the countries with fewer show opportunities.

I heard (more second hand sleuthing) that some European show organizers whined that the lowered number of qualified results would hurt their entry numbers, but to that I say ‘pish posh’. If anything, the fewer qualifying scores is likely to drive riders out to MORE qualifiers as they seek scores that boost them up the list.

I’ve given some study to the shuffling around of the individual qualifications, and I fail to see how it has a significant effect on Canada’s chances to have a ‘composite’ team in Rio. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Canucks, ain’t no way around it.  Here’s how it will all play out:

1. The winning team in Toronto in 2015 gets the one Pan Am team spot. Based on the past two decades of Pan Am dressage, we cannot deny the probability that the winner will be the good ol’ US of A.

2. One individual spot will go to the highest finisher from Olympic Group D AT GP LEVEL in Toronto (in case you are wondering, teams at the Pan Ams can have no GP horses, or one, or two – if they have no GP horses and they win the gold medal, they do not also win the Rio spot). With the US having got the team spot, that clears the way for a Canadian to probably get the individual place. Group D is North America only. For the life of me I cannot find anywhere a list of countries that are in Group D. If it includes Mexico, we cannot discount the possibility that someone like Berna Pujals might have a sizzling hot GP horse in 2015 who could nab the spot. But let’s say that Canada gets it. So we have one third of a composite team.

3. One individual spot will go the highest ranked individual from Group D on the Olympic rankings list. Again, there is potential competition from Mexico, but let’s once again assume that Canada gets this individual spot too. Now we are two thirds of the way to a composite team (and Mexico is completely shut out of Rio 2016 – so much for more flags in this particular scenario). Unfortunately for Canada, the hill now gets steeper as we get tantalizingly close to having a composite team.

4. The final six individual spots to be doled out for Rio 2016 will be given out according to ranking on the Olympic list, regardless of where the athletes are from.

I decided to do a little experiment to see how likely Canada is to get one of those final six spots off the ranking list. I had to fudge a bit, using the medal results from London to replace WEG 2014 results, results from the last Pan Am Games, etc, and the World Dressage Rankings instead of Olympic rankings, which don’t exist at the moment. Canada would not only not earn a third spot through the Olympic rankings, it would be about four riders away from getting it. We have to take into account that some Canadians are not big entities on the ranking list at the moment – riders we can reasonably expect will be much higher on the ranking as 2016 draws near. But, if the Olympics were next week, Canada would not have a team.

There is  a chance that Brazil will not be able to send a team to Rio, in which case their spot would go to the second best Pan Am team from Toronto. But I wouldn’t bank on that. As host nation, they will pull out all the stops to get a team qualified. And if you doubt their resolve, just look at how they fought tooth, nail, and three Brazilian judges at a time to get an individual qualified for London last year.

Plan A for Canada should probably be to do everything in its power to win gold in Toronto. That would be by far the easiest way to get a team to Rio, and a nice team of four at that, instead of a skeleton crew of three (sure, a country can qualify four individuals for a full composite team, but I think my experiment above shows how likely that is). The risk with Plan A is this: if we send our very, very best to Toronto and DON’T beat the Americans, we may also have shot ourselves in the foot by qualifying the individual who would have been our ace in the hole for that final round of individual qualifications from the ranking list. There is a rule that no athlete can earn more than one qualification spot. So, if we sent Ashley to Toronto in a bid to topple the Americans from the gold medal podium, and Ashley ended up getting the individual spot from the Pan Ams, she would be out of the running for one of those final six spots. The strategizing  needed for Canada to get a team to Rio would challenge even a Mensa member.

If Rio rolls around with two Canadian individuals and no Mexicans at all, a nation that is far from the weakest will not have a team, and a developing country that has seen one of its riders finish in the top ten in the world will not be there at all.

I have taken quite a lot of heat from Mission Control for being so critical of the Olympic qualifications. But you know what? Now that the GA is over and all that’s left is for the IOC to rubber-stamp the equestrian qualifications, I stand firmly and unhappily by what I’ve said all along: for the Americas and ESPECIALLY for North America, the Rio dressage qualifications STINK.