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September 3, 2009 -- After a series of widely publicized scandals, from six drug positives at the Olympics to unsavory revelations about the German equestrian team's use of prohibited substances, a sports editor friend of mine emailed to ask, "What's dirtier, baseball or equestrian?"
Although the editor was used to dealing with outrage over the steroid habits of top players in the national pastime, his mind was boggled by news that comparatively refined sports, such as show jumping and dressage, also had a big problem in this area--albeit with horses, rather than humans.
If you were a non-horsey parent selecting a pastime for your child, trying to choose among ballet, soccer and riding lessons, don't you think the bad publicity might influence your decision?
So it was time, long overdue, actually, for the FEI (international equestrian federation) to examine the situation, find a way to stem the tide of disasters and turn around the sport's image. Lord Stevens, the former chief of the London Metropolitan Police, was appointed head of a lean, four-member commission to look into what the Germans were doing at the Games in Hong Kong last year. His mission eventually expanded, with the panel asked to make recommendations that would enhance the sport's integrity. These conclusions are meant to supplement those from another FEI think tank panel, the Commission for Clean Sport, which was focused primarily on medications.
Joining Lord Stevens were U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O'Connor; Ken Lalo, a lawyer long active with FEI judicial matters who is president of Israel's equestrian federation; and John Roche, the FEI's director of show jumping.
The result of the commission's work?
"It's a major paradigm shift in equestrian sport, making it more professional, and protecting the riders, the people who are playing the game within the rules as well as trying to catch the people outside the rules," said David, noting that it also addresses "guarding the welfare of the horse. It's a different way to look at it. I think everybody believes it is needed and needs to happen now."
The commission's report is only a starting point, though. Before any of its suggestions are implemented, much work still has to be done, particularly in the area of defining what drugs are actually performance-enhancing. The matter must be taken up by the FEI's governing body, its bureau, and after that, at the organization's general assembly in Copenhagen this November before projected implementation in January.
Some of the suggestions are ground-breaking, while others may seem fairly obvious, but they represent a big step forward for an organization that too often has been behind the times.
They include better stable security; an "integrity unit" geared to keeping things corruption-free; reviewing anti-doping protocols and professionalizing the sport, which means having more paid personnel. Did you know that unlike our situation in the United States, stewards and judges in Europe do not get money for their work?
Seeking more details, I spoke with David on the phone as he drove to Britain's Land Rover Burghley four-star event. Was all the effort put into the commission's work worth it, I wondered?
"I do think it will have an effect on the problem," said David, noting the
stewarding issue is particularly pertinent, because there are more stewards on the field of play than in the stables at the moment. And professionals will trump unpaid judges and stewards who may be "good people, but in the end, they're just volunteers. The sport is professional from a rider's point of view and an organizer's point of view, and it really should be professional from an official's point of view."
Defining what a performance-enhancing drug is, and at what level it acts in that regard--as well as separating legitimate medication from doping to get an edge in competition--will make it "a much clearer playing field," he contended.
Stakeholders in the sport, David said, "must have the conversation" about the details on the medication situation to determine what and how much can be used.
The Stevens Commission suggested that no changes be made in drug rules for the Olympics any later than 18 months before the Games. This will enable people to familiarize themselves with the restrictions, and perhaps avoid the number of positives that surfaced in Hong Kong.