Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 16, 2008 -- Despite permission from a Brazilian court that would have enabled him to ride in the $2.6 million Global Champions Tour Final today, former Olympic gold medalist Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil decided at the last minute against entering the competition, thus continuing the suspension imposed by the FEI (international equestrian federation) after his horse tested positive for traces of a prohibited substance at the Hong Kong Games.
Pessoa wanted to compete on Rufus, his 2008 Olympic mount, during the high-profile meet in his homeland. That action would have defied the FEI's decision to ban Pessoa from competition for four and one-half months, until January. The ruling also eliminated him from the Olympics, where he finished fifth.
An angry Pessoa, who serves as the riders' representative on the FEI show jumping committee, is calling for changes in the FEI drug regulations, which he maintains are not fair the way they are currently written.
Reacting to Pessoa's intention to compete, the FEI warned that if the former World Cup titleist and world champion did participate, there would be "further disciplinary action" and any result he had in the competition would be "null and void."
This morning, Pessoa spoke for an hour with Princess Haya of Jordan, president of the FEI, and then discussed his situation with colleagues and advisors before bowing out.
Explaining why he didn't ride, Pessoa said, "I decided not to because I thought I proved the point strongly enough and gave a wake-up call to the FEI that we have a real problem and need to solve the problem."
Following his conversation with the Princess, he believes there is now "a bit of comprehension on the other side. What was important for me was that I had the authorization and that if I wanted to jump, I could have."
He warned, however, "We're going to need more than an hour on the phone to solve the problem. We want to help the FEI fix those problems, because they don't have the 100 percent capacity to do it. We can give them the winning formula because we know what we need and what is good for the sport."
Rufus tested positive for Nonivamide, a capsicum derivative that both hypersensitizes and relieves pain during various stages as it is metabolized by a living organism. Think chili pepper--where the initial hot reaction gives way to numbness. While the FEI tribunal that handled Pessoa's case noted the substance is only newly detectable and often given for therapeutic reasons, it is still banned, even in the tiny amount found in Rufus' samples.
Pessoa said Nonivamide had been used by one of his grooms to treat a broken collarbone, adding, "one day, he probably did not wash properly." He said another man in the stables was also using the substance on himself and there was contamination from an ice machine used on the horse, as well as possibly from some feed.
"All of this was proven, but they don't listen to consideration," Pessoa said of the tribunal.
The panel differed on that point. Although it noted Pessoa had "an impeccable record and reputation," it said he could not prove the source of the contamination, citing "poor stable management for this level of event."
Pessoa compared the panel's comments to someone who contends, "'I've never been to your house and I say your house is dirty and not well-kept.' They really had nothing, and they had to make up any kind of situation to build their case," he argued.
Pessoa's case was one of six positives at the Olympics in Hong Kong. They also included American Courtney King-Dye, who pleaded contamination as well in the case of the Felbinac, which can be used to treat arthritis, that showed up in Harmony Mythilus' samples. She and the fourth-place U.S. dressage team both were disqualified from the Games, but she was allowed to compete again in September.
Pessoa's teammate, Bernardo Alves, got a 3 1/2-month suspension, ending in December, for the use of a product containing capsaicin. The cases of Ireland's Dennis Lynch, Germany's Christian Ahlmann and Norway's Toni Andre Hansen have yet to be decided.
The over-riding issue in drug cases, said Pessoa, is that "justice has to be right. We need to have new rules and new ways of operating the sport. Throughout my decision were numerous mistakes to make it complicated and that is what is really making us angry about all this."
It's not that competitors want carte blanche, however.
"We need to have a clean sport. The riders are for the doping regulations," he said, noting they pay for the testing.
At the same time, Pessoa added, "We need to have clear rules and clear decisions. You can see clearly there was no intention of performance enhancing (in his case), but they still punish you like there is."
The FEI has a zero-tolerance rule that many feel should be amended to have a low "threshold" levels for drugs that are present in such a small amount that they cannot affect performance or soundness.
"We are going to fight in the future to have a sport better-regulated. We cannot continue like this," said Pessoa, who worries about the effect on sponsors and horse owners, "the people who love the sport and invest money. Of course, we need to have an organization make and supply the rules, but good rules, not wishy-washy."
Asked if there would be any attempt to replace the FEI with a new organization, Pessoa replied, "At the end, we will have to sit at the table and see...if they are willing to cooperate. If not, I think we have to take a different direction. We have to control drugs, but we have to have thresholds. We have to have uniformity in the sanctions, not one gets a month, another one three and one-half months and another four and one-half months."
Ironically, Pessoa gained his Olympic gold medal in Athens four years ago when Ireland's Cian O'Connor was disqualified for a prohibited substance found in his horse, and the Brazilian was moved up from the silver medal position.
Award-winning equestrian journalist Nancy Jaffer has covered eight Olympics. Her columns, photos and articles appear regularly on EquiSearch.com.