October 26, 2010 -- It was quite the bombshell when U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O'Connor decided to endorse the Netherlands' Henk Rottinghuis for the FEI presidency, and become the organization's first vice president if his candidate wins.
Did David, who is also an FEI bureau member and technical advisor for the Canadian eventing team, feel he doesn't have enough to do? Hardly. Rather, he is a man of conviction who won't shirk an opportunity to make things better for horse sports. He thinks the international equestrian federation needs a new approach, and that Henk is the guy who can lead the way.
"That's why I stuck my neck out," he told me.
The bold stroke, even if it is risky, is a trademark of the eventing Olympic individual gold medalist. He took another big chance seven years ago by agreeing to lead the fledgling USEF after an epic turf battle between the U.S. Equestrian Team and the old USA Equestrian. Look at how well that one turned out.
David is not alone in his feeling that it's time for a change at the FEI. Princess Haya of Jordan, the current president, is the first person ever to face opposition for re-election to a post that has been held by royalty for well over a half-century. The voting is scheduled for the FEI's general assembly in Taipei next month.
I have felt for a long time, before I ever heard of Princess Haya, that it was enough with the royalty thing already. The FEI needs to select its leadership from a larger talent pool, and now it will. In addition to Henk, an experienced international businessman and former vice president of the Dutch federation, current FEI First Vice President Sven Holmberg of Sweden is standing for the job.
Asked for details about why he threw in his lot with Henk, David told me, "I really thought he is the kind of person who would be able to lead an organization like this. He's the right brain, the right personality. I think he's got a global view--he's got a listening sense to him. One of my strengths has been picking people for different jobs and he has impressed me on that side of it."
Being "a listener," David explained, "is very important in a job like that." The FEI is rather like the United Nations in some ways, David pointed out. A leader needs to "guide a plan that all types of national federations would buy into from an economic point of view, from a growth point of view, from a development point of view. There's not one answer for everything."
So what's the problem with the way the FEI is run now?
"This is not a small business, privately owned. This is a worldwide organization that has to have stakeholders, the national federations, really believe in the process of how things get done," David stated.
In his view, there's not enough listening and thus the federations aren't buying into things, he believes.
"I think it's a very top-down organization and I don't think an organization like that can be driven from the top down. Things have to come up through the ranks and be guided from there, on most issues," he said.
David noted "You can trust the national federations that have really good programs," while " the ones that don't, you really try to create opportunities for them to take advantage of it without telling them how to do it."
What does Henk want to do? Among other things, balance representation and expertise, producing a new board structure within a year. And something that will be music to many ears, "Ask technical committees to study if we can cut rules and regulations back." He also wants to locate regional offices on three continents, cut 25 percent of present projects ("do less, but do it well") and put "the sport" back at the center of everything. There's much more, but one key tenet is the reminder that "volunteers are our backbone."
The volunteer part strikes a chord with David; he is, after all, a volunteer president.
While he feels the restructuring of the staff at the FEI has been very good, and that the staff is more professional now than it has been, the balance with the volunteer side has to be strengthened.
"The professional staff can't run an organization like this on their own because they have to implement policy, and not so much create policy. The volunteer side has not felt that they have buy-in," he said, and several incidents have underlined that.
Two occurred at last year's general assembly, when a plan to restructure the FEI was turned down. While people may have liked the statutes, they didn't like the way the situation was handled.
"The FEI took away the democratic process," is the way one delegate put it. Others thought they didn't have enough time to study the proposals, which was also a problem with a massively controversial plan to allow the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in competition.
Although it narrowly passed, the matter subsequently was tabled for a rethink and consideration at this year's general assembly. But meanwhile, the fact that a number of European countries (not just federations) have rules against using NSAIDs made it obvious that it could never be allowed by the FEI, and the whole incident left ill feelings in its wake.
While the push for new leadership wasn't just one thing, "that was one of the public things," David commented.
"It's very important to have people buy in before you make a final decision and to have them buy into the process of how that decision is made; that has to be regained," he said.
"With the surprise of the drug thing and the restructuring idea that everybody had worked on, and the game was changed at the end, those were things, that (had) people then lose confidence."
And of course, there was the World Cup debacle earlier this year when McLain Ward, seemingly on the verge of winning the title with Sapphire, was eliminated from the competition amidst a clumsy application of the FEI hypersensitivity protocol that triggered controversy and worldwide notoriety.
If you're worried about David's busyness quotient should he get the FEI position, don't be. He's not.
David points out he only has two more years to go on his USEF term and that he has great support from staff and volunteers throughout the organization. He did say he told Henk that as far as the first vice presidency goes, however, he would continue his coaching duties and thus be less available at some times of the year than at others.
I asked what I thought was a logical question: Will U.S. interests be hurt if Haya wins a second term, after David has cast his lot with the opposition?
"It's hard to speculate," he said.
But on the plus side for the U.S., "I think we have a very strong presence on most of their (the FEI's) committees and we have a very good relationship with other national federations at all levels, from staff all the way up to volunteers," David commented.