Austin, Texas, October 14--Could there be a settlement on the horizon in the long-running battle between the U.S. Equestrian Team and USA Equestrian (formerly the AHSA) over which should be horse sports' National Governing Body?
The suggestion that something might be brewing came this afternoon, at the end of the second day of the U.S. Olympic Committee hearing on the USET's challenge to USAE's NGB status. Bill Stapleton, a USOC vice chairman who heads the five-member hearing panel, asked USET President Armand Leone and USAE President Alan Balch to meet with him for a few minutes.
Neither Balch nor Leone would discuss what went on in their brief session, and tomorrow's wrap-up of the hearing is still scheduled. But during the evening, the presidents of the organizations, who are not normally drinking buddies, were spotted with USET Vice Chairman Frank Lloyd and USOC attorney Jeff Benze, looking for a table to talk around in the hotel where the hearing is taking place.
As testimony droned on today, Stapleton--a straight-talking former Olympic swimmer who is a sports agent--posed more questions than he had Saturday when the hearing opened.
Assessing the situation, he wondered what stopped a merger between the two groups.
"In your mind, why are we here?" he asked former Olympic show jumper and show organizer Robert Ridland, who was on the stand for USAE.
Ridland had stated his view that the USET and USAE should become one.
"Everyone seems to agree," said Stapleton, then corrected himself and said, "or I should say, rational people agree that a merger of some sort...that there are sort of these two moving parts and they fit together. Why are we here?"
"I don't think everyone does agree, unfortunately," replied Ridland.
"You agree with that (the merger)," said Stapleton, "but you said there are a lot of people that obviously don't think that. Why do you think they (USET and USAE) go together, and why would somebody think they don't?"
"I can't answer that, because I only know how I feel," said Ridland, whose articulate comments made the Yale University-educated horseman a strong witness.
Asked further about the concept of a merger, Ridland said, "The goal is just to have one governing body, correct? That's the only way you can do it. I believe in the larger picture."
"Why didn't the strategic planning (the USAE-initiated Strategic Planning Initiative) and mediation, why didn't any of that work?" Stapleton asked.
Replied Ridland: "I have no idea. It baffles me."
Earlier, Stapleton wondered why the AHSA wanted to be the NGB "if they have abdicated their responsibility to the USET and failed to fund the USET for the last 10 years...For marketing reasons, or why?"
He was referring to testimony that the USET had handled all the training, funding, development and fielding of teams in international competition that are the responsibility of an NGB, and that USAE had not given the USET any money since 1991.
Ridland took issue with the concept that USAE had abdicated its responsibility, but answered Stapleton's question about why USAE wants the NGB role by saying, "they've done a good job of it."
Ridland downplayed the USET's role in training, saying it was key in the days when riders lived at team headquarters and worked daily with coaches, but it is less important now when they spend only a few days at a time with coaches in clinics or before and during competition.
Taking the same tack was USAE Secretary Linda Allen, a witness for her organization, who cited the German model of an NGB in which all breeds and disciplines are under one federation. The 1996 Olympic show jumping course designer emphasized the success of the Germans in international competition. But on cross-examination, a USET attorney brought out that the Germans have won no eventing medals in the last two Olympics, while the USET has won four with its program that includes a full-time coach.
In the morning, USET Executive Director Bob Standish finished cross-examination with USAE attorney Ira Finkelstein, who said that under the merger proposal, "the USET would become a part of the new NGB. It would continue to exist and have a role."
In response, Standish commented, the role would be "very unlike what it has now, in that it can determine how and why and when and where it (the USET) is going to perform its traditional roles."
The attorney asked, "So you're saying, if the USET cannot continue in its current functions, it would disappear?" to which Standish said "yes."
"And you would not be prepared to assist the NGB in raising funds or any other marketing activities to support athletes?" Finkelstein continued.
Said Standish, "If the USET is no longer in a capacity in which it can perform those roles, it would not be possible for it to assist the NGB. I don't think the USET would exist if in fact its role and function were assumed by the AHSA."
Tomorrow's session ends the hearing, with a report from the hearing panel expected sometime in the next week if no settlement is reached. The panel's recommendation will be considered at the end of the month by the full U.S. Olympic Committee, which will make the final decision about the NGB question.
By the way, did you know Austin hosts the country's largest urban bat population? They spend summers under a bridge near the hotel. So if anyone at the hearing feels they're going batty after listening to three long days of testimony, they won't have far to travel.
Award-winning equestrian writer Nancy Jaffer has covered six Olympics. In addition to the disciplines held at the Games, the New Jersey resident writes about everything from endurance and hunters to equitation and driving. Jaffer, whose work has been published all over the world, is the secretary of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists. Her column appears regularly on Equisearch's English channel.