FEI Seeks to End “Elitist” Tag, to Vote on Continuing 56 Years Being Run by a “Royal”

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FEI Presidential candidates Sven Holmberg, Henk Rottinghuis and Princess Haya Al Hussein
FEI Presidential candidates Sven Holmberg, Henk Rottinghuis and Princess Haya Al Hussein

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

As delegates to the International Equestrian Federation annual General Assembly talked of ways to rid horse sports of the “elitist” tag, they prepared to vote Friday on whether to continue a sixth straight decade of the FEI being run by a “royal.”

Princess Haya of Jordan, who has been president of the FEI for the past four years, is seeking to beat back a challenge by two European males for a second four-year term as the head of the organization made up 133 nations.

The FEI, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, governs the three Olympic disciplines of dressage, eventing and jumping as well as five other equestrian sports.

Since 1954, the FEI leadership has played musical thrones, starting with Prince Bernard of the Netherlands for 10 years, Britain’s Prince Philip for 22 years, his daughter, Princess Anne, for eight years, the Infanta Doña Pilar de Borbòn of Spain for 12 years and Princess Bint Al Hussein for the past four years.

Prior to that, the organization reflected its military roots with seven career officers running it from the time of its founding in 1921 to 1954, with a single “civilian,” an auto company executive, in charge during the years of World War II.

This year’s election is only the second in which an incumbent president has been challenged in seeking re-election.

Dutch businessman and horseman Henk Rottinghuis and Sven Holmberg of Sweden, the current FEI 1st vice president, are seeking to replace Haya in a campaign that has taken on some aspects of political campaigns.

All three were highly visible at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. The North American Riders Group that represents most of the top jumper and hunter riders publicly endorsed Rottinghuis, for example.

At a meet-the-candidates’ session Thursday, each contender made a 15-minute speech followed by two hours of questioning from delegates who will vote by secret ballot using an electronic balloting system.

Princess Haya has been an activist president, warning that equestrian sports in the Olympics were threatened by the behavior in some sports that came to a head at the 2008 Beijing Games with the disqualification of several horses for use of prohibited substances and the handling of dressage judging.

She dismissed the FEI Dressage Committee and set up a Task Force that recommended creation of a new committee that in turn is implementing changes in judging and other aspects of the sport.

Different approaches in the so-called Clean Sport campaign divided the FEI in 2009, but died down in 2010, especially as the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky found no positive drug tests in horses or humans.

Ignoring objections from most nations in what used to be the Super League, she ordered it enlarged from eight teams in eight competitions to a Top League with several more teams. The new format has proven unsuccessful and is reverting to the original structure.

However, substantial financial support for equestrian sports from some Al Maktoum family businesses have made some national federations fearful that her defeat at the polls on Friday could see that spigot turned off.

Sven Holmberg has been chairman of the FEI Jumping Committee since 2005 and is a judge. He has been organizing national competitions since 1973 and a member of the Swedish Equestrian Federation for 15 years. He has been President of four FEI World Cup Jumping Finals. He was Sports Director at the inaugural FEI World Equestrian Games in Stockholm in 1990 and was the Swedish Dressage team’s Chef d’Equipe at two Olympics and two World Equestrian Games.

Henk Rottinghuis has been involved in equestrian sport for 45 years as a competitor and administrator. He competed in national dressage competitions for 11 years from 1970 and went on to work as a referee and assist in the organization of several international driving competitions, including the world championships in the Netherlands.

As a member of the Dutch Equestrian Federation from 1999 to 2004, he is credited with steering the organization through major organiational restructuring which brought 16 separate member groups under one umbrella as the Royal Dutch Equestrian Federation (KNHS). In 2003 he was elected Equestrian Sportsman of the Year for his services to the KNHS. In 2005 Rottinghuis initiated the largest ever one-day equestrian event in the Netherlands, with more than 700 horses taking part in a Royal Salute on the 25th Jubilee of Queen Beatrix.

The issue of elitism in equestrian sports was raised frequently at General Assembly sessions Thursday, including during a discussion on the Olympics scheduled for 2012 and their equestrian legacy.

In a report on the equestrian venue in Greenwich Park, competition manager Tim Hadaway reported that as of now the Games are “on time and on budget.”

Riders and team officials will be housed in the Olympic village with all other athletes, while grooms will live in a four-star hotel just 300 yards (meters) from the stables that Hadaway said may be the best accommodations ever.

Reserve horses will be stabled at the competition venue.

The main dressage and jumping arena is being built for up to 22,000 spectators in the park that originally was a hunting preserve for Henry VIII. Grand stands will not be built on one side of the venue so as to provide an uninterrupted view toward the Queen’s House and the River Thames.

The majority of horses for the competition will be from continental Europe so will travel to Greenwich Park by road.

Horses from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia/New Zealand will most likely be flown into a continental airport such as Amsterdam and then transported by road to London, he said.

Trond Asmyr, FEI director of dressage, reported on changes in the sport, including the use of seven judges at Olympics, WEGs, World Cups and continental championships at Grand Prix level and use of supervisory panels that will have the power to correct technical mistakes and counting errors.

A proposal will also be made to allow exceptions to the rule requiring 10 meters between the competition arena and spectators as some venues are too small to meet the requirement.