Thinking Past Paris: USEF Sport Director Focused On Future Olympics

Nov 23, 2021 - 8:00 AM

After multiple high-profile figures within the international equestrian community—including U.S. show jumping Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland and Swiss gold medalist Steve Guerdat—made detailed arguments against the use of three-person Olympic and Paralympic teams after the Tokyo Games, it may have been surprising to learn that national federations last week voted overwhelmingly in favor of keeping three-member squads for the 2024 Paris Games.

Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s director of sport, who just returned from the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s 2021 General Assembly in Belgium, explained why that happened, despite a litany of impassioned arguments on topics such as horse welfare and the problems with flying non-competing reserve horses across the world, and what factors he and the leaders of other national federations are debating to help shape future Olympic cycles.

First, Connell said, the countries in favor of returning to the four-rider format recognized going into the vote that making such a change before Paris was unlikely, particularly because—due to the yearlong delay of the Tokyo Games—the FEI is on a shortened timeline to submit its proposed qualifications to the International Olympic Committee, which will meet to vote on them in February 2022.

“I think we all knew how difficult it was going to be to move from teams of three back to teams of four because of the timeline,” he said. “But many of us had had feedback from athletes, from owners, from coaches that they felt the format—including teams of three—didn’t necessarily work as well as it might have in Tokyo, and it was important their views were articulated to the FEI. Now the FEI has to take into account not just the views of the national federations and the athletes, etc., but they are our communication conduit to the IOC. And the IOC have very well-articulated requirements around the qualification.”

At the FEI’s General Assembly on Nov. 17, 70 national federations voted in favor of three riders per team, and 30 voted for four. While it was a clear loss for the U.S. and other countries in favor of using an extra rider to allow a drop score in competition, Connell said the vote actually indicated growing support for return to the four-rider format.

“I think the last time this was voted on, which was when the qualifications were done for Tokyo, it was maybe 10 or 11 national federations who … said we want teams of four,” he said. “This time, it was 30. So, if you say it’s gone from 10 or 11 to 30 in one cycle, I would say that gives us a mandate to keep having the discussion. In fact, I’d say it gives us a very strong mandate to keep having the discussion because, again, in the FEI, it’s one nation, one vote.”

Some of the countries voting in favor of three-person teams have never fielded an equestrian athlete—individual or team—but the three-person format increases the possibility they one day might.

The qualification discussion at the FEI General Assembly branched into issues beyond squad size, ranging from which competitions athletes can use to get their Olympic qualification—a debate that reflects the disparity in geographic access to top-level competitions across the globe—to specifically how equestrians events should be scheduled and scored in Paris.

After Tokyo, the decision to run the individual show jumping final before the team final was criticized. While the team gold medalists from Sweden already had jumped in both rounds of the individual competition—along with two riders each from the third- and fourth-placed teams—the U.S. horses, who had a rest day instead of jumping in the individual final because none had qualified for that round, entered the team competition that much fresher and ultimately won silver.

The dressage scoring was another point of contention because in the Grand Prix Special, which counted for the team medals, individual scores were announced in percentages, but team totals were calculated in points.

“You needed a degree in mathematics to understand it,” said Connell. “I was sitting there, and I consider myself reasonably good at math, with calculators and bits of paper, and I know one team had someone back in Britain that was sitting there trying to brief them on what was happening. So, there’s probably things we can do better there. There’s certainly things we can do better in sport presentation.”

Minimum eligibility requirements for athletes are another area up for discussion, and many changes were made as a result of the full rule revision for jumping this year. Some federations expressed concern about athletes and horses qualifying who are not adequately prepared for the challenge presented at the Olympics, with safety concerns at the forefront in eventing and show jumping.

Connell stressed the need to look beyond Paris to Los Angeles (2028) and Brisbane, Australia (2032). Focusing on those Games six and 10 years out could allow for a comprehensive overview of the entire process.

“The long game is that if we start having the discussions on Los Angeles now, then it gives us far longer to have an unemotional examination of how we do the qualification system, and have we really examined every possibility?” he said. “What can we learn from other sports? And what can we learn from performance analysis? If you go back 20 years statistical performance analysis was not used by a lot of people. Now it’s massive. So, can we use data better to build the qualification system?”

While Paris will be a only a short drive for European-based athletes, Brisbane will have similar concerns to Tokyo with regard to the difficulty of flying horses. Some reserve athletes and their owners elected not to go to Tokyo because they had a low probability of competing, and Connell predicts that there may be more who decline to go to Australia. The difficultly lies in balancing that with the needs of smaller nations who strive to have an Olympic presence.

“It costs a lot to go to the Olympics, especially when you have to take a reserve,” Connell said. “But we also have to be aware that there are national federations and athletes that don’t currently go to the Olympics, but it is their dream, and if they can show to their national federations or funding committees that there is a pathway to the Olympics, it releases funds. So, there are many different factors that need to be aired and taken into consideration.”

Taking a team of three plus a traveling reserve costs the same as taking a team of four where all will compete and the lowest score will be dropped; the difference is that, in the latter scenario, all horses being shipped will at least start the competition, and no one is being asked to take the risk and expense of shipping a horse whose Olympic experience is mostly likely to end at the jog.

“How can we take the emotion out of it when you say going to teams of four, that’s going to reduce the number of teams—or does it reduce the number of individuals?” Connell asked. “All these options can be discussed over a longer period of time rather than coming out of Paris in 2024 and having to make those decisions in 12, 18 months.”

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