No one could have predicted that the Fédération Equestre Internationale delegates would vote to legalize threshold levels of drugs like phenylbutazone at the General Assembly in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Nov. 19.
The FEI has been struggling to deal with doping in equestrian sport for years. Medals had to be stripped and reassigned after show jumping drug scandals at the last two Olympic Games, and equestrian superstars like Germany’s Isabell Werth and Great Britain’s Michael Whitaker were set down for doping incidents this summer.
It should have been a landmark day to pass historic clean sport reform at the General Assembly. This summer, Great Britain’s Lord Stevens headed up a commission with the mission of investigating doping in equestrian sport and proposing changes for the better. His commission ended up partnering with the Ljungqvist Commission for Clean Sport, headed up by Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the IOC Medical Commission and vice president of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Two hours were set aside for presentations on the topic. Delegates heard powerful speeches from the leaders of the joint commissions on wide ranging reforms for medication control and the “professionalization” of the sport. Lord Stevens pulled no punches. Equestrian was “as good as dead” if it was not clean.
So the room was nothing short of stupefied when FEI veterinary director Graham Cooke dropped into his presentation a brief item that delegates would be voting for the controlled use of phenylbutazone—banned outright 20 years ago—and two non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.
Significant global players—the United States, Germany, Ireland, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden—made impassioned pleas for zero tolerance. But when the secret ballots were cast, “bute” was back in international competition by a margin of 53 votes to 48.
Even FEI vice-president Sven Holmberg was moved to tell the floor, “What you have just done has cut the legs off the clean sport campaign. If you thought recent media reaction against rollkur has been tough, just wait to see what happens with this.”
A request in the afternoon for a re-vote from the German president Breido Graf zu Rantzau—backed by Ireland and Britain—was rejected on the grounds that some delegates had gone home, and that there had been no ambiguity about the motion.
The controversy lay in the separate choice between continuing with an Oct. 20-dated list of prohibited substances (also referred to, confusingly, as the “current list,”) and adopting a “progressive list.” The latter does not prohibit phenylbutazone (up to 8 mcg/ml in plasma or serum), salicylic acid (up to 750mcg/ml in urine and up to 6.5 mcg/ml in plasma or serum) and flunixin (up to 500 mcg/ml in plasma or serum) so long as those substances are not detected in a horse's sample above the prescribed limits noted and are used in isolation and not combined.
The progressive list also sanctions acetycysteine, dichloroacetate (lactanase) and isoxuprine.
Where Did This Come From?
The FEI seemed as baffled by the furor as delegates were by the FEI’s matter-of-fact delivery of the bute option, and its apparent failure to have rehearsed any sort of rationale or justification for the inevitable barrage of questions.
At first the top table replied that the move had come ”from the industry,” prodding Bo Helander, the Swedish delegate and former FEI chief executive to ask, “I have been in the FEI for 30 years and have never heard of this mysterious body, ‘the industry.’ What is it, and what place does it have in the FEI?”
Noting that the threshold for bute was three-times the previous threshold before the outright ban, Helander also thought FEI budget forecasts would now be at risk. Major commercial partners such as Rolex would surely not wish to be associated with a sport tolerant of certain drugs.
"If the FEI accepts this, there will be uproar in many countries. It's completely unacceptable for horse welfare, and changes the whole philosophy of the FEI," said Helander.
Graham Cooke then offered the rationale that the featured anti-inflammatories were variously still tolerated by racing authorities and/or the U.S. Equestrian Federation. USEF CEO John Long swiftly grabbed the microphone to reject any inference that USEF had initiated the move. “That is not our position, and we do not support it,” he said.
The following day, FEI officials explained their position further.
“The Prohibited Substance List adopted by the FEI General Assembly on 19 November—the 'Progressive List'—allows the restricted use in competition of a limited number of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory substances at very low levels. The World Anti Doping Agency has no restriction on the use of NSAIDs for human athletes. We should be able to treat not only our human athletes as approved by WADA, but also—and under similar principles—our horses close to competition. These very low levels have been established based on scientific evidence specifically to protect the welfare of the competition horse. The data that was requested was to establish the levels needed to provide minor anti-inflammatory relief only.”
Not all delegates seemed to have received a notice sent out on Nov. 13—just six days before the vote—about the Oct. 20 progressive lists. Ulf Helgstrand, president of the Danish federation, urged the FEI to park the issue of the progressive list until a later date.
"If we introduce the list, I'm afraid the public and sponsors will shoot us down and say we only want to stop the number of positive tests,” he said.
Frank Kempermann, director of Aachen and incoming chairman of FEI dressage, warned that he would lose sponsors. "I can't understand how this proposal can be made. Our message is clean sport. How can we justify that to sponsors if we allow bute?”
Only one delegate, a veterinarian from South Africa, lent support. He thought it reasonable that bute could be given if a horse stepped on a stone or suffered a mild colic the day before a competition. "If it happened to a human, he would be allowed to take Voltaren [diclofenac] and ride," he said. "It is so expensive to get a horse to an event, we should be able to treat."
Clean Sport Proposals Accepted
Earlier, the overall package of clean sport proposals was overwhelmingly approved to the satisfaction of the joint-commission chairs, Ljungqvist and Lord Stevens.
Apart from an extended list of prohibited substances and a clear division between the offences of doping to affect performance and genuine medication errors, all the other clean sport proposals previously publicized were adopted. These include an independent integrity unit, tighter stable security and access, “professionalization” of officials and veterinarians to reduce vested interests and education programs. National federations will be expected to bring their domestic medication controls in line with the FEI’s and testing laboratories will be harmonized round the world.
New sanctions start with a minimum two-year ban for actual doping offences. Lesser offences can be dealt with for first-timers with an on-the-spot fine. A confidential hotline will allow people with concerns about suspected offenders to help intelligence-led investigations, which may include out-of-competition testing. Sample-testing will also be more transparent.
A revised Clean Sport microsite was due to go live immediately after the assembly, and the legal department has produced a layman’s guide to the rules.
“Ultimately it was down to the equestrian community to make the final decision, and they have voted in support of the package as a whole. The two Commissions have put in an enormous amount of work to come up with these recommendations, and it is particularly gratifying that we have received such overwhelming support for the clean sport campaign from the national federations,” said Ljungqvist.
“We said yesterday that the FEI needed to adopt these recommendations before it could be given a clean bill of health. They have been approved by a massive majority, and now the sport can move forward,” said Lord Stevens.
Princess Haya’s repeated urgings that the bute controversy should not be allowed to detract from the overall significance of the meeting seemed likely to go unheeded, but it was clear that she was emotional when addressing delegates after they had approved the reforms she has promoted with a passion for the past year.
“This is a true landmark moment in the history of our sport. The overwhelming support of the national federations is proof that we are moving in the right direction thanks to the incredible work done by the Ljungqvist and Stevens Commissions. This vote has given us the power to roll out Clean Sport and allow us to restore the public image of our sport as a clean and uncorrupt product,” she said.