From my observation, every Olympic sport has a world championship.
Arguably, the two greatest titles athletes can earn are Olympic gold medalist and world champion. These competitions shape a sport’s history and its future, as well as its image and its fan base.
Unless, of course, the governing body tasked with upholding that history seems determined to run ramshod over the facts.
As show jumping struggles to maintain its place in the Olympics, it is also burdened with an international federation that is recklessly erasing history in the other most important contest. The just-finished World Equestrian Games shone a spotlight on how the, arguably, failed concept of a multi-discipline championship not only diminishes the sport’s history, but takes champions down with it.
To understand how that’s happening, let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane.
Since its inception in 1953, the world show jumping championships has been overwhelmingly dominated by European men. The individual title wasn’t even open to women until 1978 (who previously had a separate championship), the same year the team competition was added.
But, in 1986, for the first time ever, the tide turned. The Americans won the team gold medal. The North American domination continued with Canada’s Gail Greenough becoming the first North American and the first woman to win the individual title. Both records remained unbroken until last week. Or did they? Some people think that’s open for discussion.
The 1986 championship would prove historic for another reason, as well—it was the last stand alone event for the sport. In 1990, the FEI changed course with a new format for the quadrennial event. Last week, 28 years later, that change was still causing confusion. Multiple sources on FEI-TV, NBC, and social media were unclear on who actually is a world show jumping champion and the FEI is only adding fuel to the fire.
So, I went to my filing cabinet and pulled out a nearly 30-year-old press release. When the FEI announced the first World Equestrian Games, the press release gave a short synopsis about past world championships, then stated “The big difference will be that jumping, dressage, three-day eventing, driving, endurance, and vaulting will be held at the same time and in the same place.”
They did not say they were no longer having world championships. They did not say they were creating a new championship. The 1986 World Championships were, possibly, the most historic ever. But, as the language from that official press release indicates, they weren’t intended to be the last.
So when the Americans captured team gold in Tryon last week and FEI-TV’s commentator repeatedly said it was the “first time” the U.S. had won the world title, I was dumbfounded. Did the FEI just fail to give their own commentators a list of past champions? (A mandatory prerequisite when I worked in television.)
The attack on the truth continued two days later when FEI-TV and NBC’s commentators hailed Simone Blum as the “first woman ever” to win. Immediately, the FEI itself posted a video to their own YouTube page titled “Simone Blum Becomes First Female World Jumping Champion.”
What happened to those world champions in 1986? The FEI’s own headline is in direct contradiction to its definition of the World Equestrian Games at the time of their creation.
Don’t get me wrong. The re-writing of history didn’t mar a top-notch broadcast from FEI-TV. It is a monumental and expensive task to broadcast an event of that size and length. We were lucky to be able to witness outstanding jumping from the first horse in the ring on day one, until a new champion was crowned and a 32-year-old record was broken five days later.
I hold the FEI, not the commentators, solely responsible for altering the sport’s history. Kim Prince is, quite possibly, the best color commentator I have heard, being knowledgeable without being showy about her expertise. She and British commentator Philip Ghazala made a solid team. They were informative but savvy enough to leave some “quiet space” to just let the viewers watch, which doesn’t happen enough on sports broadcasts.
To Ghazala’s credit he did slip in a mention of Greenough during the final moments of Blum’s medal presentation. But it was brief and only happened because someone who saw my dismay on social media got a message directly to him.
When I turned to social media with my concerns about these inaccuracies, several responses illustrated that an entire generation of people who love equestrian sport has grown up without understanding what constitutes a world show jumping championship. They, along with one or two my own, older, vintage argued that “Weg” was something altogether different and those past world champions won something else.
On social media, I also saw complaints that there were not many spectators in the stands. This may not seem related to my complaint about terminology and historical records, but is in fact directly so.
An international sport governing body is ultimately responsible for making the sport marketable. They should also be the definitive source of historical data. How is the sport marketable to the public (who might fill those empty seats) or to sponsors, if a bunch of knowledgeable and involved people, including the FEI’s own commentators, don’t know what the sport’s definition of a “world champion” actually means?
One response I got on social media went like this: “Gail is in the record books, for anyone that cares to look.” But why would they? People who fill the stands at hockey games, baseball games, or the Olympic Games, don’t search the record books to double-check the information the announcers give them. They rely on those sports authorities to provide specifically those types of facts.
There are many reasons for empty seats, but it is a frequent complaint in this sport. To attract fans, and sponsors, a sport needs to be clear and easy to understand—simple terminology and non-conflicting facts are a key component of that. Fans don’t pay to watch something they don’t understand and acronyms like “WEG” don’t help. At least “world championships” can’t be reduced to a meaningless word.
The world champions of the past, both team and individual, put their hearts and souls into earning the ultimate title, just as today’s champions do. Every sport makes organizational changes. But they don’t obliterate past champions in doing so. In my opinion, the FEI has some serious re-branding to do and could start by reading its own history.
About the Author
Jayne Huddleston was a photographer and journalist covering Olympic Games, World Championships, World Cup Finals and Pan American Games, as well as major show jumping tournaments around the world over a 20 year period. Following that she spent 16 years with CBC-TV Sports, and was part of the crew that produced network television broadcasts of show jumping at Spruce Meadows, the Royal Winter Fair, Olympic Games and other show jumping, as well as producing short-form documentaries about wide-ranging issues in the broader world of sport. She served as publicist to Ian Millar during Big Ben’s career, and publicist for the Canadian Equestrian Team at two Olympics and one Pan American Games. She has been an editorial consultant and photo editor on three equestrian books, and served as an expert witness on civil lawsuits involving show jumping statistical data. Now retired, Jayne is still an avid fan.