Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

‘Everybody Wants To Go’: David O’Connor On Olympic Eventing Changes

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Eventing has been part of the Olympics since the 1912 Games in Stockholm, and in the modern era, spectators are used to seeing the traditional order of phases—dressage, cross-country, then show jumping. But that will be changing for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics under a proposal from the Fédération Equestre Internationale that was submitted to the International Olympic Committee in early March. We caught up with David O’Connor, as U.S. Equestrian Federation chief of sport, head of the FEI Eventing Committee and an Olympian himself, to ask more about the proposed change in Olympic eventing format and public responses to it.

In an effort to highlight the cross-country phase, which draws the most interest from spectators (and the most viewers on television broadcasts), the International Olympic Committee and Olympic Broadcasting Service, which handles TV coverage of the Games, recommended that phase be held last. The FEI in response has proposed the team competition in Los Angeles be run like a short-format CCI—dressage first, followed by show jumping, and then cross-country will determine the final team placings on the third day. The specifications for each phase—course length, number of efforts, and so on—will still conform to the standards for a long-format event; the phases will just run in a different order.

Under a proposed new eventing format for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, the cross-country phase would run last and would decide the team medals. Lindsay Berreth Photo

Additionally, instead of holding a second show jumping round later on the final day to determine individual placings, as has been done since the 2004 Olympics and will be done later this year at the Paris Games, the individual round will be held the day after cross-country, meaning the entire competition will span four days.

The changes were previewed at a Fédération Equestre Internationale Online Eventing Seminar, held Jan. 20, and March 1 was the deadline set by the IOC for all international federations to submit their 2028 competition formats. “The details pertaining to the technical aspects of the proposed format will be discussed in detail next year, in the framework of the revision of the FEI Regulations for Equestrian Events at the Olympic Games, once the IOC has provided its feedback,” the organization said in a statement.

Public response to the change has included complaints that the format has changed too much, over time, from the original template of a long-format three-day with a full endurance day, including roads and tracks and steeplechase, in efforts to keep it in the Olympics, and suggestions that eventing would be better served to leave the Olympic menu rather than continue changing.

We spoke to O’Connor for his insights into the effects the proposed changes might have. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the big picture question here: Why do you think it is important for eventing to remain in the Olympics, even if the format is a little watered down or different than what we’re used to?

Well, I would disagree that it’d be watered down, and how different it is. We actually do this sport already, right? This is something that we do every single weekend all around the world [with short-format events], including in some big competitions, like Aachen [CHIO in Germany] or in Nations Cups, things like that. So there are some pretty big competitions that are run in this format, and obviously Aachen is one of the tougher competitions in the world. So that’s No. 1.

The only difference between this and Aachen, or whatever, is that the courses will be onto the longer distances and not the short-formats that we have now. But it will still be five-star dressage, five-star show jumping, four-star cross-country up to 10 minutes [in length], or in that area; it depends on what the weather is in the places that we’re going, obviously. So this isn’t actually reinventing another sport. It’s just taking one of them and adjusting it a bit, to make it actually a little bit harder, in one aspect, of the sport that we already do.

No. 2 would be that there’s no question that being on that stage at the Olympic Games is seriously important for the exposure of the sport. No matter what everybody says, everybody wants to go. There’s not a competitor that actually doesn’t want to go, right? The Olympic Games has always produced a person that has the quality of an Olympic champion, no matter what the format is. When we lost the steeplechase, did it change the sport? Yes. But we had to, at that point, because of a lot of other considerations.

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“[B]eing on that stage at the Olympic Games is seriously important for the exposure of the sport. No matter what everybody says, everybody wants to go. There’s not a competitor that actually doesn’t want to go, right?”

David O’Connor, USEF director of sport

Here, is this going to change the sport? No, because I don’t think there’s any desire or thought process of changing the other championships, the championships that are run by the FEI. So the world championships are going to stay exactly the same because they are the FEI’s competition. This is not the FEI’s competition. This is the IOC’s competition, of which we are invited guests. So, I think, stay in the Olympic movement for its exposure, stay in the Olympic movement because it gives goals for athletes and horses. As long as the core concepts of eventing are the same, which is, No. 1, riding the same horse in three different disciplines, and also having an element of galloping, which is so different from the other two disciplines.

Seven-time Olympian Phillip Dutton voiced his support for staying in the Games after the 2028 format change was announced:

There is also funding that comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee for the Olympic sports. How big of a factor is that?

Well, I think it’s a bigger factor worldwide, much more than just here in the United States. The high performance budget for the U.S. Equestrian Federation is $13 million, between all of the different sports. The eventing budget by itself is $1.8 million [but does not include the cost of the Olympics]. And part of that is supported by the USOC, a large part of that is supported by USEF, and a large part by the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation. But if we’re not part of the Olympic process, all of the Olympic funding to each one of the national federations would go away. That’s going to affect coaching, it’s going to affect educational programs, it’s going to affect a lot of other things. So it would be a huge thing, and it would happen within a day. There are countries around the world where their whole budget really is supported by their Olympic committees. If their Olympic money goes away, then they won’t play the sport at the levels that we’re playing. It would have a huge economic impact, maybe not so much here in the United States, or in England. But in other countries? Absolutely. Absolutely it will have a huge effect.

[The USOC provided about $2.6 million to USEF in 2021, the last Olympic year, and almost $1.8 million in 2022. You can view the amounts provided to each sport from 2019 through 2022 here.]

From a rider’s point of view, do you think reversing cross-country and show jumping will require any change in strategy or how riders approach each phase? Do you think it’ll be different?

I don’t think so. Because we’re used to it [with short-format events], right? As I said, it’s not a new sport. When you go to the Olympic Games, your strategy depends on where you are in the team order much more than what’s happening out there on the day. Obviously, you always have to put your horse’s welfare first, but your strategy is within the team order. So if your first person screws up, that’s going to change the strategy for the day. If your first two people have a great day, then you’ve got some flexibility. So that’s the strategy.

Your job is to go clean and as fast as you can go safely around the cross-country course. And then you deal with the next day, that’s the reality. So I don’t see that really changing. [The CCI4*-S at Gatcombe] was the one to win in the world for a long time, now Aachen is one of those ones to win, and you don’t see people taking stupid, crazy chances. I’m not that worried about the security of the horses [doing cross-country last].

The second show jumping round for individual medals—how big of an ask of the horses is it to come back and do a second round on that fourth day?

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I think it’s easier than what we’re doing [for Paris], where they’re doing a second round an hour and a half later. I think this is a better system than what we have now, personally. Bringing the horses back an hour and a half later and having to jump another course—even though it’s a shortened course, you know, 12 efforts instead of 15—I just think this is going to be better.

Have details been worked out yet about when horse inspections would be held with this format?

Obviously there’ll be one after cross-country and before the individual [round]. There will have to be one there. And there will be one going into the competition. The details of what happens after the horses go cross-country [for the team competition], that aspect is still to be determined. And that’ll be a worldwide conversation, because there are a lot of questions about it.

[We wanted] an acceptance of the actual format first, [and then we’ll put] a list together of the individual things that it brings up. From making sure that we can get scores immediately and not having to wait, to the welfare issue about horses when they finish [cross-country] and how they’re looked at. And then for each one of those issues, there are sub-questions underneath it. You open up the one door, and, OK, well, there’s four more. As long as we’re in the mindset of problem solving, I don’t see anything that is not solvable that still puts the welfare of the horse first.

Are there other big questions that you have as far as details that still need to be worked out?

I think scoring is huge, because we want a result right away, right? If we have a flag issue and how that’s reviewed, that will take some thinking. So we’re just kind of putting the list together and then going around the world to see what kind of ideas there are. National federations have actually been quite forthcoming about some really good ideas already, so it’ll be a worldwide conversation. And we basically have a year to do it, because the Olympic regulations will have to be done by the end of 2025. That’s when they get approved by the FEI General Assembly.

Is there anything else about this subject that you think is important that you want people to know?

Obviously, I’m an Olympian, right? So I’m a big [proponent] of promoting the Olympic Games and what it does for people in the industry, and the fan base, and all that kind of stuff. These are the TV people that want to promote the sport better, you know, in a bigger way. Because [the short format] is a sport that we already practice, they said, “We think that this is way more exciting.” I think you have to listen to that.

If we’re going to be judged by media, right, which is what the Olympic Games is—you’re always judged by how many people are watching, what the interest is—and the TV people are saying, “We think that format is really much more celebratory of your sport,” I think you have to listen to it, and that’s what happened.

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