If today’s headline confuses you, here is a bit of background reading to help you get un-confused: first, read Astrid Appels’ editorial on the hysteria surrounding the results at last week’s CDI 3* in Moscow; then, when you have digested that, take a look at the statement the FEI quickly issued once the hue and cry had reached its ears. I am not known for being a defender of the FEI, but in this case I land firmly on Mission Control’s side of the little white fence.
And now that you’re up to speed (or gone to find entertainment somewhere less DQ), here is my take.
The first thing that bothers me about Astrid’s piece is her use of terms like ‘meddled’ and ‘disrupted chances’ in regard to the Russians’ strong results getting in the way of other nations’ efforts to qualify individuals or composite teams for Rio. A question for you, Astrid. Can you please explain to me how the Russians’ success equates to getting in the way of others’ success? If that’s your argument, then you have to take it to its logical conclusion: if a Portuguese or Belgian rider were to finish ahead of Marina Aframeeva this Sunday when the qualification period ends, wouldn’t that rider have ‘disrupted’ Marina’s ‘chances’ to compete at the Olympics? There may be flaws with the Olympic Ranking List and individual qualifications (and don’t get me started on Canada’s loss of the opportunity to send a team due to the Pan Am claw-back), but it seems to me there is something else going on between the lines.
I can be counted among the denizens of the world who believe Putin is a dangerous despot, and that Russian policies – from occupying Crimea to anti-gay laws – are abhorrent. But let’s not paint everyone from that part of the world with the same black brush. When I saw Mister X for the first time in Normandy 2014, I immediately declared him a rising star (see this post-Normandy blog for proof). He has since developed into one of the world’s top horses. My first reaction to the scores that Inessa received last week was that finally the judges have managed to see their way to giving Mister X the scores he’s deserved for some time now.
In her condemnation of the Moscow scores, Astrid failed to mention the pertinent fact that Inessa rode a new freestyle last week, one that greatly improves on the mish-mash of mis-matched music she used over the previous year. Not that this new freestyle is perfection itself – one can take only so much Kalinka in one freestyle. I grew up listening to my father’s Red Army Chorus records, and I love Kalinka. But not for every single gait in a freestyle. (My dad is neither a communist nor of Russian descent, by the way. He just really liked all those powerful male voices.) However, better too much of one theme than no theme at all, and this new music also did an excellent job of supporting the horse’s gaits.
Steady technical improvement of a highly talented horse and rider combination, (and in the freestyle, combined with a new and improved music and choreography program) can and should lead to an upward climb in the scores. Who in their right mind would dispute that? Valegro’s first GP score at a CDI, in Vidauban in March 2011, was 73.723%. Just over a year later, he won Olympic gold with 83.663%. At the risk of restating the obvious, that’s a difference of ten percent.
One thing which puzzles me in Astrid’s rambling rant is that she says the judging in Moscow was consistent, when it most definitely was not (for you fellow numbers nuts like me, here is a link to the results). For Inessa, there was a nearly seven percent gap between low judge Engel (GER) with 78.9%, and high judge Soboleva (RUS) with 85.7%. Of the five top placed GP combinations, the smallest gap from high to low judge was four percent. Two out of the top five had gaps at or near seven percent.
In the freestyle, one often sees more divergence in the scores than in technical tests, partly due to the wildly varied reactions judges have to the artistic elements of a performance. But whether it was the absence of Soboleva on the freestyle panel, or a little bit of ‘getting on the same page’ over shots of vodka the evening following the GP, the technical scores were incredibly close in the freestyle. Mister X received between 80% and 82.75% technically (compared with my previously hinted at ‘wild’ range in artistic marks – between 82 and 90), which is a tight little set of scores by any standard. Similarly, Inessa’s sister Marina, who was second both days with Vosk (and is the cause of Astrid’s main complaint of Olympic ‘meddling’), also had a close set of technical marks in the freestyle, with the low score at 74.25% and high score 77.75%.
I’m not pointing this out to start a debate on whether the judges need to be within five points of one another – that’s a long, complex discussion for another day. I’m pointing it out because a lack of logic in an argument tends to indicate that emotions are the driving force behind the thesis, rather than rational thought.
Another issue I have with Astrid’s editorial is the demand that the FEI take charge of assigning judges for all FEI events. There are two problems with this idea: the first one is that having the FEI assign judges is not going to erase the very real and ongoing problems in the world of judging. It’s a subjective sport. It always will be. Familiarity bias, just to give one example, is a human response to circumstances that can be erased only by the use of non-living judges – or possibly a frontal lobotomy, which is now illegal, though I will admit to having fantasized about lobotomizing a judge or two. As Il Padrino Stephen Clarke once dryly pointed out, ‘until they invent robots to do the judging, you’re stuck with us humans’.
The other flaw in Astrid’s solution is a practical one: unless the FEI also wants to pick up the travel tab to fly judges around the world as a result of a random draw system, it is just not reasonable to expect show organizing committees to fork over immense sums because they drew a crew of judges from all over the globe. If the foreign judge requirement can be met by reaching across a border, why saddle an already-struggling OC with an unnecessarily far-flung foreign judge? The net result of such a policy would be a disappearance of shows as competition budgets collapse under the weight of the excessive costs. If the FEI is going to put some money into footing the bill for officials, wouldn’t that money be better spent on some kind of minimum wage? Can we reasonably expect judges to behave like professionals as long as what they do is closer to a glorified volunteer activity than a job?
And this leads me to my last point, which is in regard to the ‘scandalous’ news that Ghislain Fouarge gave a three day clinic in Russia four months ago, and – horror of horrors – both Inessa and Marina rode in that clinic. Someone asked me what I thought of the furor over the Case of the Clinicking Judge. My response was that I didn’t think much at all. As Astrid herself points out, judges teaching riders is rampant world-wide. And one valid reason for allowing judges to give clinics, is this: if you are the Costa Ricans, for example, and you have to bring in a panel of FEI judges so that you can obtain qualifying scores for the Pan Am Games (keeping in mind that all of your country’s FEI level riders number fewer than ten – it’s a very small horse show), it’s an enormous financial challenge to make ends meet without putting the judges in a hostel and feeding them beans and rice with only water to drink. Having one of the judges stay to give a clinic at the end of the competition is a way to help off-set those enormous travel costs. Not to mention getting some valuable feedback from knowledgeable eyes on the ground, which are not exactly on every street corner, unless you are in Germany.
Let me put this another way. There are plenty of things in DQ land to get one’s panties in a twist over. But a judge having given a clinic four months ago isn’t one of them. Marina Aframeeva is just as entitled to a ticket to Rio as any other rider in the world who has earned the scores. Anyone who disagrees with that simple premise is guilty of the very thing that the judges are so often accused of: nationalism.