LANE ONE: Equestrian’s answer to a Games in distress: Bigger isn’t better

You don’t usually find much equestrian coverage in The Sports Examiner. Its regional or worldwide international competitions are limited in view of the costs of moving horses and people around, and it is a fourth-tier sport in terms of impact and viewership in the Olympic Games.

But the manner in which the sport’s international federation is handling a new crisis over its most celebrated event is instructive for the entire world of sport, especially for its realistic and pragmatic approach.

The 2018 edition of the World Equestrian Games, an eight-discipline extravaganza that brought the entire equestrian world together in a two-week showcase, was troubled to say the least.

The question in front of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) was “what now?” Kill the event? Try for a ninth edition in 2022? Find another solution?

The resolution was quick, practical and forward looking and is worth examining, especially by those facing similar problems … like perhaps the International Olympic Committee?

In a series of events with mirrors the current difficulties that the IOC is suffering through with the Olympic Winter Games, the planning for the 2018 World Equestrian Games began in 2011, with bidding opened and five candidates eventually stepping forward in 2012: Rabat (MAR), Bromont, Quebec (CAN), Budapest (HUN), Vienna (AUT) and Wellington, Florida (USA).

By 2013 everyone except Bromont had dropped out due to the cost of the event (sound familiar?), so the FEI re-opened the bidding process and Wellington and Lexington (USA) and a bid from Great Britain came in, but only Bromont and Lexington (the 2010 host) stayed in and Bromont was selected in 2014.

In 2016, Bromont abandoned the event because of costs and the FEI asked for replacements and Tryon, North Carolina was selected over Samorin (SVK) in November 2016.

The event took place in Tryon from 11-23 September, but was plagued by weather issues, primarily from Hurricane Florence. In addition, there was a false start in the endurance event on the first day and the entire endurance event was canceled because of high heat and humidity that would have our the horses at risk.

Equestrian writer and photographer Lulu Kyriacou (GBR) summed up the situation concisely in September in a post for, noting that the 2018 event would incur a loss of about $1.5 million:

∙ “As a one off concept … WEG as a multi-disciplined celebration of horse sport was a good one, to generate publicity and raise awarenesss of equestrianism . But that idea was for just three disciplines, not eight, so now, as a reoccurring reality, the World Equestrian Games is a lumbering dinosaur, impossible to run efficiently or without great financial loss.”

∙ “As the FEI have encouraged diversity, so the Games has grown and having to make arrangements for hundreds of horses, athletes and support staff means trying to run the Games at a profit is nigh on impossible.”

∙ [Some have suggested] “that perhaps the Games needs to be split, if not into eight separate championships, perhaps into two or three smaller chunks, which existing venues (e.g. Hickstead, Aachen, Samourin) could host without difficulty and without spending a fortune.”

The FEI’s General Assembly met in Manana (BRN) in mid-November and the World Equestrian Games issue was front and center. The FEI Director Games Operations Tim Hadaway (GBR) noted that the “lack of venue readiness and an under-resourced Organising Committee, both from a financial and personnel perspective, were major negatives that ultimately impacted the delivery of the Games.”

So what now? The FEI heard the complaints, recognized the issues, and its executive committee (known as the “FEI Bureau”) took the practical route, as detailed in its wrap-up report released on 17 November:

“The FEI has twice opened the bidding process for the FEI World Equestrian Games 2022, but this has not resulted in any realistic bids. As a result, the Bureau unanimously approved the opening of a bidding process for individual world championships in all disciplines for 2022, but with preference being given to multi-discipline bids.”

Sabrina Ibanez (SUI), the FEI Secretary General noted to the General Assembly that “This does not necessarily mean the end of the FEI World Equestrian Games, and bids to host all-discipline Games will still be considered.”

So the World Equestrian Games is in the deep freeze for now, buried by its cost, due to its expansion from 422 entries in 1990 to 702 in 2018, a 66% increase in eight editions. Smaller is better, smaller costs less, and smaller can produce better results for the athletes and those who watch them. Those are lessons all sports – and all organizing committees – would do well to learn.

Rich Perelman