National Federations, FEI At Odds Over Three-Person Olympic Teams

Nov 15, 2021 - 8:00 AM

Ever since three-person teams were announced for the Tokyo Olympic Games, a vocal contingent of riders and national federations have expressed their disapproval of the format. Instituted in response to the International Olympic Committee’s mandate that equestrian competitions include more nations, the intent of the three-person teams was to increase the number of nations competing without increasing the total number of athletes—for example, changing from 15 of the traditional four-member squads to 20 three-member ones.

But in practice, the three-athlete teams had mixed results.

For dressage, where the three-member format had been used in the past, it didn’t make all that much difference. If a horse had a bad day, their score reflected it, and the team finished lower in the standings. But for eventing and show jumping, the three-person teams, which allowed no drop score, lead to scenes—played out on the world stage—of riders who might otherwise have retired instead continuing on a struggling horse to avoid elimination.

TokyoteamSJpodium_FEI
Seven countries, including the United States (shown left, during the show jumping team medals ceremony at the Tokyo Olympic Games), spoke against continuing the three-person team format used in Tokyo. Kai Försterling/FEI Photo

Nonetheless, a proposed qualification system for the 2024 Paris Olympics recently released by the Fédération Equestre Internationale retains the three-person format for all three equestrian disciplines. The FEI will vote on that qualification system during its hybrid General Assembly, being held Nov. 14-17 in Antwerp, Belgium.

In creating the proposed qualification system, the FEI sought post-Tokyo feedback from national federations and stakeholder groups on the format and qualification system. The International Olympic Committee, in a Nov. 3 letter from IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell to FEI President Ingmar De Vos, praised the three-rider teams for increasing flags, making each result count, being more understandable for a global audience, and ensuring a more level playing field for all participating countries. The FEI committees for all three disciplines indicated they will follow the IOC and support the three-rider format.

Horse Welfare Cited In Supporting Four-Rider Teams

Among feedback submitted by 17 national federations and several stakeholder groups, seven countries—Austria, Czech Republic, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and United States—and the International Dressage Riders Council, spoke against the three-person format and in favor of returning to four-member teams. The British Equestrian Federation did not formally submit feedback but indicated it plans to comment “in due course.”

Among the top reasons national federations gave for returning to the four-person team was concern for horse welfare. After Irish show jumper Shane Sweetnam was criticized publicly for continuing after his horse showed signs of struggling before the two fell on course during the team qualifying round in Tokyo, conversations regarding reviving the drop score resurfaced.

“It is kinder to the horses because it puts less pressure on a rider if the combination makes a mistake or the rider feels he should not continue a bad round,” the German federation commented. “In a team of (three), riders are at risk to overstrain their horses if they know they must complete the round because otherwise their country will be out. In a four-to-a-team format, nations could still continue in the competition if a combination was retired or eliminated. We must not compromise Horse Welfare for the sake of having more flags.”

The U.S. Equestrian Federation agreed, stating, “Teams of (four) with a discard (score) are essential for the good of the sport and horse welfare, especially in Jumping and Eventing. We believe this actually benefits the weaker Nations.”

In order to maintain the athlete quotas for each sport (75 for jumping, 60 for dressage, 65 for eventing) while also satisfying the desire for more flags under a four-person team format, several countries suggested decreasing the number of teams eligible (down from 20 for show jumping, 15 for dressage, 16 for eventing) and increasing individual participation.

“We support to have more flags as long as it is not compromising horse welfare and that all participants qualify on fair worldwide procedures to ensure safety and to have the best of our sport at the Olympics,” France’s federation commented. “To increase the number of flags we would recommend to prioritize on the best individuals from upcoming nations instead of having teams not fully composed by safe enough combination.”

For eventing, Ireland suggested, if four-person teams are not reinstated, that the alternate combinations be allowed to compete as an individual and still be permitted to substitute in for the team if needed. Ireland posited that would also avoid the issue of having owners, athletes and horses traveling great distances to the Games without an opportunity to compete. They cited Piggy March’s Brookfield Innocent, who was named the traveling alternate for the British team but withdrawn shortly before the horses flew to Tokyo because the owners did not want to fly the horse to Japan if it would not get to compete.

While the FEI dressage, eventing and jumping committees each said they would support the continued use of the three-person format, the FEI Jumping Committee also stated that it will work with stakeholders to determine the best format under that formula, as following the Tokyo Games, many pushed to reverse the order of the individual and team competitions.

Europe Vs. The World

The other major topic of feedback from national federations regarding the qualification system centered on which competitions should be used as qualifiers, and it showed stronger equestrian nations’ desires in direct conflict with those of smaller nations.

The Eventing Committee proposed using the 2022 and 2023 FEI Nations Cup series as an additional Olympic qualifier, providing a team “quota” spot to the top-ranked country from each of those series that has not already qualified for Paris. That proposal was met with disapproval from the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the Pan American Equestrian Confederation, who argued it was too Eurocentric given that there are no Nations Cups offered as qualifiers in other regions.

The committee felt that the arguments were valid, and clarified that their quota proposal was based on the level of sport worldwide. They wrote that the lack of four-star events outside of the U.S. and Europe presented challenges for ensuring other qualification possibilities and that including Nations Cups as qualifying opportunities would encourage other regions to develop that level of competition.

In a similar vein, Austria asked that minimum eligibility requirements for show jumping be reinforced to ensure those qualifying for the Olympic Games had received at least four qualifying scores in 1.60-meter classes.

“[C]ertain minimum criteria should be fulfilled, so that an Olympic-size course can be managed in a way that is suitable for the horse,” the federation wrote.

Uruguay, which did not have any representatives in Tokyo, argued that too much emphasis is placed on qualifying results achieved at world championships over regional competitions, asking that the number of team spots allocated from the world championships be reduced, and one or two additional spots be awarded out of the Pan American Games. (Two teams currently qualify out of the Pan American Games.)

“[Qualification out of World Championships] harms the peripheral regions that normally do not have access to this kind of events and hinders the global representation in the games that, according to our point of view, should be based on the regional results,” Uruguay wrote.

The country also suggested that the allocation of individual spots needed to have stronger ties to participation in regional championships, like the Pan American Games, rather than world ranking.

“In many cases, the combinations obtain their ranking as a consequence of their participation outside their respective groups, therefore encouraging them to desist from competing in their correspondent Regional Games [which is particularly true for South American countries], thereby damaging the competitive quality of the [Regional] Games and making their individual participation prevail over the conformation of national teams.”

For more about the 2021 FEI General Assembly, or to watch it live, click here.

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