Shock and Awe in Taipei
04 November 2010, 08h30 CST (GMT+8)
The 2010 FEI General Assembly in Taipei
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We are at the midway point of the International Equestrian Federation (Fédération équestre interrnationale, or FEI) General Assembly in Taipei, and the tension is palpable.
My colleagues and I from Canada’s delegation have been spared the most vexatious forms of politicking that have stalked the FEI’s presidential campaign. Our colleagues from South America have not been as fortunate, with whispers and shouts of coup and counter-coup putting an end to more than one friendship.
I have been involved in Canadian politics for many years, in local, provincial, national, and leadership campaigns. Despite that background, I have been taken aback by the brutality of many aspects of the FEI elections. Having glimpsed the underside of the organisation, I fear that very few people have risen in my regard.
The FEI is composed of ten regional groups. Canada belongs to Group IV, in the main, the English and French speaking New World countries.
Yesterday, the regional groups were given their annual audience with the FEI Bureau (which in Canada would be called a Board of Directors). Although the exercise is ostensibly meant to offer us an opportunity to present our collective views to the Bureau, it appears to be organised primarily to strike awe into our hearts.
The Bureau sits at the far end of a cavernous and largely empty conference hall, lined up along one side of a long conference table, on a dais physically elevated above the rest of this room. From this perch, they invite the regional groups to come forward in turn and sit before them at a second smaller table placed on lower ground. As a result, throughout the proceedings, the Bureau literally looks down on the regional groups, while the group representatives must look upwards under their gaze.
David O’Connor, president of the United States Equestrian Federation, chairs Group IV, and he delivered our group’s requests of the Bureau on the individual issues we had discussed the previous day. However, our group asked me to then address the Bureau on broader questions of how it had conducted itself over the past year, and how it had discharged the mandate we delegate to it.
As one might imagine from its magisterial settings, the Bureau is unaccustomed to being called to account by FEI member countries, and it is certainly unprepared to be spoken with in direct and candid terms. Nevertheless, our group believes strongly that for the good of our sport, we have a duty to tell the Bureau what it needs to know and not just what it would like to hear. To do otherwise would be to fail in our duty to them, to the FEI, and to the global equestrian community.
My address was in two parts.
Our first message concerned the processes used to set FEI policy on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), arguably the single most contentious issue facing equestrian sport today.
The matter is complex, but in essence, there were a series of catastrophic procedural and communications failures in the process employed by the Bureau at the 2009 Copenhagen General Assembly. Fortunately, the Bureau organised a subsequent Lausanne exercise that rescued the situation. Although we reached the correct destination, the journey was unnecessarily circuitous, divisive, and damaging. Our group’s message to the Bureau was that in the future, the Lausanne process must be the rule, and the Copenhagen process the exception.
My second message concerned the conduct of Bureau members as the NSAID issue unravelled.
The central pillar of the Bureau’s democratic accountability to the FEI is the principle of collective responsibility. While decisions are before them, Bureau members all have a responsibility to make themselves informed and active participants in debate, and to find the courage to offer dissent where they judge it to be warranted. Once a decision is taken, however, they all have no less of a responsibility to collectively stand by it, so long as they are Bureau members.
In the case of NSAIDs, after the FEI had taken its decision and after that decision had become a subject of international controversy, a number of Bureau members publicly dissociated themselves from the policy. This was – and is – wholly unacceptable. It was conduct that left the Bureau ethically impoverished and with damaged credibility.
Our group’s message was that if any of them had objections of procedure or of substance, the moment to speak up had been prior to the decision being taken, when that decision could have been shaped and changed, not afterwards, when all that could be achieved was to ascribe and evade blame.
Prior to the vote at the Copenhagen General Assembly, not a single Bureau member voiced any opposition to the NSAID Progressive List Motion on the floor. By biting their tongues at the moment of decision, they forfeited any right to publicly criticise the outcome.
I summarised our views bluntly: it is the duty of every national equestrian federation and every Bureau member to put up or to shut up.
The words of my address were undoubtedly difficult for them to hear. They were certainly no easier for me to utter. All the Bureau members are my colleagues, many of them are my friends, and I regret more than I can express that this matter may come between some of us. However, a friend fails in his duty if he remains silent as his friend wanders off the edge of a cliff; a national equestrian federation fails in its duty if it allows that friend to take the credibility of our sport with him.
The reaction from the Bureau was utter and total silence. Not a single person offered a comment or question before we left the room.
Later, the current FEI president told me over coffee that they had been in shock: “No one, and I mean no one, has ever spoken to us like that. But we badly needed to hear it, and I can tell you that every one of them is going to remember it forever. You made them listen. I just hope they act.”
The response since has been curious. Those who agreed have been speaking to me of little else. Those who disagreed have not said a word to me, though I am aware that they have said a great deal about me.
The next major chapter in the FEI saga will be tonight’s presidential candidates’ debate, which will be webcast in its entirety. I encourage anyone with an appetite for excitement to watch it.