European Protest Against FEI Medication Liberalization is Polite...But Serious

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What began as a routine press release from our friends at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany evolved into an international political document right before my eyes.

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It looked routine enough on the surface: Deutsche Bank had renewed its sponsorship of the CHIO Aachen for another three years. "Aachen" is a one-word synonym for Europe's greatest horse sport event. The partnership between the bank and the horses goes back to 1957.

I was also impressed to learn that the telecast of the horse show is seen in 143 countries and that the dressage show there offers the highest prize money in the world. Nice press release...but then came the politely worded but sizzling political statement that might have almost been overlooked.

In the course of the press conference with the bank, the organizers of the CHIO Aachen pointed out that the event will continue to present what it calls "fair and clean sport". In July 2009, Aachen's horse show visitors had been interviewed by representatives of the German University of Sport in Cologne. The students' survey showed that 89 percent of the visitors were convinced that the CHIO organizers are exhausting all their options in the fight against doping of the international-level horses.

The Aachen organizers took mention of that vote of confidence as a mandate to segue into the current political debate about the FEI's medication rule change, which will, from January 2010 on, allow traces of three medications, including Bute, in competition horses. General Manager Michael Mronz stated: "We do not want to have unsound or injured horses in our sport. The CHIO Aachen 2010 will not be carried out on the basis of the current FEI regulations, but according to the ethics of clean sport."

Obviously, Aachen is choosing to define clean sport by old FEI standards. At last year's CHIO, Aachen had the most stringent drug testing regime ever set up at a horse show, following the scandals of failed tests at the Olympics and at European shows in 2009.

In the course of last week's General Assembly, the FEI decided to permit several substances for the treatment of horses shortly before or during an event; previously, international competitions sanctioned by the FEI had had a zero tolerance for any medications. The liberalization--which is still far more conservative than US competition drug rules--didn't sit well with most western European horse sport organizers.

In the press release, Frank Kemperman, Chairman of the Managing Board of the Aachen-Laurensberger Rennverein e.V. (ALRV) said: "The FEI's decision is a contradiction to our ideal of the sport." Kemperman had been in Copenhagen as Chairman of the FEI's Dressage Committee and vehemently fought against the new regulations.

There's no doubt that the Europeans are taking this rule change very seriously. In a recent statement protesting the FEI's new medication rules, Breido Graf zu Rantzau, president of the German Equestrian Federation (FN), even mentioned the unthinkable: a boycott of the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky by the so-called "European alliance" within the FEI.

Interestingly, the FEI rule change does not seem to be inciting much protest here in the USA, and the major sport organizations have been quiet about the change, which after all only affects international-level competitions sanctioned by the FEI. However, the FEI would like to see other nations adopt its rules for national competitions; this would mean a major cutback in American medication allowances if USEF was to adopt FEI rules.

In October, we watched the major national powers of world polo--Argentina, the USA, and Great Britain/Ireland--withdraw from the Federation of International Polo (FIP). Everywhere you look in the horse world, political disagreements lead to the creation of alternative breed registries, competition leagues, and lawsuits. But there can only be one FEI. Only one Olympics. Only one World Cup. Only one World Equestrian Games.

As if in answer to the question that no one has yet asked, the lead sentence in the sports section in Tuesday's Gulf Daily News reads: "Bahrain Royal Equestrian and Endurance Federation's vice-president Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa yesterday vowed his support to Princess Haya bint Al Hussein of Jordan to maintain her post as International Equestrian Federation (FEI) president."

Meanwhile, back in Europe, a new web site sprouts on the Internet. No-FEI.com is home to an online petition calling for the non-implementation of the so-called "progressive list" of medications approved last week in Copenhagen.

Welcome to global politics, equestrian style.

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