Alban Poudret, the multi-tasking Swiss equestrian journalist
You are also a strong advocate for the Championships but today, when you see Championships with more than a hundred riders on the starting lists. Do you think this is good for the public?
A.P.: "We must think about the universality of the sport. It’s important that the Polish, who really have progressed, and other Eastern European countries, can be represented at the European Championships, and that Arab or South American countries can be at the World Championships. They must be able to participate; that’s part of the beauty of the sport. It’s important that they come. Also, I think we are going too far with the new regulations that have drastically reduced the number of teams and individuals that get to return on the last day. I already thought that 25 combinations, and then 12, was a little sad to see at the European Championship in Gothenburg where clear rounds from the first round couldn’t start over in the second round, when they could have won some money and ranking points. It was an aberration. Fortunately, this has since been changed. 12 and 25 combinations at the World Championships is even more shocking to me. Twelve is nothing. I would have left 25 combinations in both rounds, knowing that there would only be 20 of them starting over anyway. I don't see the problem. I even think that at the World Championships, it could be 20 or 30. We could go up gradually, we can't have teams travel to the other side of the planet to do one or two courses. It’s a little shocking when you consider the costs involved. I don't think it’s that serious if there are one or two events where there aren’t any spectators in the morning and they arrive in the afternoon to see the best compete. There are obviously weather issues where the risk of a thunderstorm would impact the competition, but on the second or third day, we could still have a session followed by a break with free seats in the first part. It has been said that we must act accordingly for television... but in any case, television may well only broadcast the second part of the competition. They can edit and take extracts and highlights, so apart from the hyper-concerned channels like the equestrian channels and the host country’s channels... anyway, they don't broadcast all that! A judicious compromise has to be found."
What about the Olympic Games?
A.P.: "At the Olympic Games level, I think that they have even dared to say that the three-person teams will be better from a media point of view, it's a joke. On the contrary, if the USA or Germany have a 16-point round or an elimination in the morning with their first horse, then the Americans or Germans will no longer follow any of the riding and they’ll watch the swimming or the athletics for the rest of the day. To use that argument for the Olympic Games is incredible. I’ve covered many Olympic Games for Swiss television. We jump from one discipline to another. We switch from riding to swimming, to basketball, and depending on competitors chances, we’ll come back more or less, coming back especially for the Swiss and for the final fight. So it won't change anything whether there are three or four competitors... the only risk is that large nations with television channels that are important to our audience will no longer be there. And speaking of the USA and Germany, they wouldn’t have been on the podium in Rio with teams of 3. My worst fears are that it becomes a lottery. As a Swiss man, I should be rather confident, because we have two huge champions with very strong nerves, and they’ll probably find a third and they will probably increase our chances... but I’m thinking of the sport first and Steve Guerdat is too. He was the first to fight this idea. Once again, he’s in a fair fight. I think we're going to have to lower the level of excellence, and even more so in eventing, where the level will have to be lowered to get three at the finish. I think there’s a reason why five combinations were able to compete in the team competition in London, to get three at the end! I’m deeply worried about this three-rider format. I think that presenting the media argument when it hasn’t really been discussed with the journalists involved is a shame."
Is it part of the downward levelling?
A.P.: "Yes, absolutely. Excellence is the goal of sport. The objective is still to reach the top and the best performance by sorting out the best to reward the strongest. That was never questioned at the Olympics. We’ve never had any doubt in the Olympic Champions... rightly so, because you have to be ready, to give your best on the day, and that only comes around every 4 years. There are 1,000 things that make it an even more complicated and unfamiliar environment to manage for horses and riders. In Tokyo, I think we're going to have to lower the level of the courses and that's very unfortunate, as well as doing the individual event before the team event. There was a logical graduation and now we’re doing the opposite... of common sense! We have always started with the teams and ended with the best individuals. It makes a lot more sense that the most difficult courses come at the end, that the difficulty goes on increasing, it's also much fairer for the horses."
It’s sad, however, to imagine that people think that they can save their events at the expense of excellence. There’s often a willingness to innovate, to reinvent everything without thinking of raising the difficulty of the events.
A.P.: "That's really what it is. It’s a shame. I don't understand, although I think there are sometimes laudable feelings like wanting to keep the horse at the Olympic Games. People harp on about the desire to keep horses safe at the Games... but we forget that it’s the only mixed gender sport and the only sport involving an animal. There are a thousand arguments. It’s an extraordinary, magical, theatrical sport as we saw in Jappeloup's film. I don't think we're in that much danger and I think that this new regulation is counterproductive. Currently, a rider's ultimate dream is to be crowned the Olympic Champion. For a journalist too, the ultimate dream is to report on the Olympic Games, but it’s complicated, it’s expensive and if it’s no longer absolute excellence, we’re all going to lose out."
Even if it’s not the ultimate dream, a circuit is developing today, and increasing its number of stages a little more each year. How have you experienced the Global Champions Tour’s rise in power, a rise that hasn’t happened in a day, with Valkenswaard having first been part of the Triple Crown Series with Monterrey... and Aachen, and which now leads to a well-thought-out concept financially?
A.P.: "I think there has always been the threat of a parallel circuit, or even a parallel federation, which is why cases have sometimes been brought before the Competition Tribunal. Unfortunately, the FEI has not been strong enough in their decisions for fear of something parallel being created. However, in my opinion, when you are the FEI, when you are an Olympic sport, you still have the assets in hand to impose your views. The result today is that a circuit that was of a reasonable and normal size has become sprawling with the blessing of the FEI. 12 stages, that could still be fine, maybe 15, but 20... and we are now talking about 20 to 25, it is becoming all-encompassing. This is a negative for others, especially the Nations Cups, and what bothers me is that several Global Champions Tour dates have been changed to be held almost right before the seven poor stages of the Division 1 Nations Cup. We see contests being moved by two to three weeks and finding themselves being held one after the other. So I get the impression that there is an intent to dominate, and that worries me. I don’t understand why the FEI doesn’t defend its own two series, the World Cup and the Nations Cup, which are magnificent and highly appreciated by riders. That is the essence of our sport. I don't understand why the number of stages in the Global Champions Tour is increasing so much. And these artificial teams that cost €2.5 million bother me. I think it’s becoming a real problem. There is resistance regarding this, as can clearly be seen. But this also gives ideas to others, other traders as well as other organizers. So there may be other circuits in the making. Maybe it's ok for the FEI because it brings in a lot of money. And we'll certainly exceed the one hundred "5 star" event mark. That's a lot of money that goes into the FEI coffers. This all needs to be tidied up. This worries me as a journalist. Not at all as an organizer, because we have an excellent concept with our Rolex Grand Slam, no dominance temptation since we said 4 to 5 stages maximum. We haven't add any competitions. We have four of the biggest competitions, that were already on schedule on those dates and that already attracted the best riders. Another issue raised by the Global Champions Tour is all the travel that is imposed on the horses that travel long distances and fly regularly. So there are still many questions about its development. This expansion will not be able to keep going and I get the impression that it will trigger a multitude of ideas and projects in others, and you have to wonder where it’ll end. Some organizers are happy to announce that well-known riders are booked to attend, but when they arrive with their Number 5 mount, it’s just not the same sport. That makes the sport confusing, because on the one hand, you have three Top 10 riders but with their Number 4 horses, and on the other hand, there are two with their Number 2 horses... what’s most important? It doesn’t make sense."
And what do you think of appearance fees?
A.P.: "Personally, I’m an absolute purist and in Geneva, we don't want any appearance fees being paid. Even if 10 riders offer us 50,000 (Swiss) francs to ride, we always refuse. I’m not saying that it’s easy, because there are years when there’s a little bit of money missing from the till, but we have principles, we have a code of conduct and we want real sport. However, I understand that some organizers cannot do that and have to accept a few appearance fees, and I see this as much as an organizer as a journalist. Being a 100% purist is not a necessity, however, everything must be well defined and the 60-20-20 rule - i.e. 60% qualified by rankings, 20% selected from the host country and 20% who have been invited – which allows a good selection of invitees. In other words, inviting other riders and young people who deserve it, who never get the opportunity to ride in 5 star’s, to make their mark. It makes us so proud to have people like Alexis Deroubaix, who competed in the first five star event of his life in Geneva, and who went on to the World Games the following year. It’s an absolute joy. That said, if one sells 10 places of that 20%, and that’s allowed in the rules, it's possible and it doesn't bother me too much. But creating a very clear 60-20-20 rule and not applying it to the Global Champion’s Tour, where they can do as they please with their teams that cost €2.5 million... it’s not okay. As long as there were the 30 best riders in the rankings who were automatically invited, and 20 who paid, it was fine with me and I never criticized it, even if it didn't excite me. It was still within relatively reasonable limits and I understood that these events counted toward the world rankings. Now, with €2.5 million teams, it looks like a caricature and that’s a sport that no longer deserves to be included in the world rankings. That distorts the situation because it gives priority to too many privileged riders over talented young people from the world of breeding and riding. How can they still dream? I’m very concerned about this development and I don’t understand why the FEI has accepted this. It’s a terrible downward spiral."