Battle of Saddles Between FEI and GCL Continues

By December 8, 2015

Art shot, or critique of the FEI? You be the judge of the image accompanying the Global Champions press release. (Photo: Stefano Grasso)

After legal tussling that has yet to come to a conclusion, the Fédération Équestre Internationale has granted interim approval for member riders to participate unsanctioned in third-party team competition, specifically the newly formed Global Champions League circuit. The ongoing battle sees the FEI and the GCL, two of the world’s most powerful horse sport entities pitted in a confrontation that will impact legal precedent as applied to other sports.

An offshoot of the elite Global Champions Tour European show jumping circuit founded by horse sport impresario Jan Tops, the Global Champions League is set to launch in 2016. Building on the huge success of the GCT, which has over nine years grown into a star-studded road show that sees the world’s top horse and rider teams competing for some of the largest prize money in show jumping. No surprise, then, that many top athletes have thrown their support behind the GCL.

The FEI, however, seems to compelled to keep a tight rein on team competition. As the sport’s governing body — with rules and specs that cover everything from carriage driving to vaulting and endurance — it has threatened sanctions against members who compete in events that do not make it onto the official FEI calendar.

The GCL will see Olympic and World Champions in action every Friday at 15 sensational LGCT destinations around the world. Some top riders seem excited that the new format is innovative and will spread excitement and draw fans and TV audiences, creating “new rivalries and tactical alliances.

The world’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked show jumpers — Scott Brash (GBR) and Kent Farrington (USA) have spoken out in support of the GCL. For their part, the athletes seem to simply be gravitating to the best competition and the biggest prize money. The FEI’s premiere international team-based series for show jumping falls under the header Nation’s Cup and, like the Olympics, is more about sport than prizes.

Acting provisionally, the FEI said it will refrain from sanctions on GCL participants as the fight continues. The FEI has said the move is aimed at preserving the peace of mind among some of its most elite members, a legitimate concern that likely takes a back seat to the desire to protect itself against future legal action should the newcomers prevail.

Indeed, what started out feeling like a schoolyard turf battle has come to feel more like an out-and-out war. The dust-up got its legs in Belgium, where Tops and the Global Champions group is based. In June, the Belgian Competition Authority — which legislates Belgian play across all sports, administering its own, as well as EU rules — decided against the FEI, suspending its “exclusivity clause” and ordering it to abandon sanctions, a decision that already survived one appeal, and is now to be re-heard by the BCA on the merits.

Although the FEI plans to challenge whether the BCA’s decision has legal standing outside of Belgium, it does carry moral weight, and the FEI temporarily backed off on the sanctions as the fight wages on through appeals courts.

“We simply want justice,” FEI President Ingmar De Vos said. “We do not want our athletes to be the victims of this ongoing legal case, so we will abide by the Belgian Competition Authority ruling and not sanction them or their horses for competing in GCL events, but it is very important that they are aware that there has been no ruling on the merits of the case and that these interim measures guarantee nothing on the future of unsanctioned events.”

The Global Champions group put its own spin on things last week, issuing a media release that stated, in part: “The Fédération Équestre Internationale, the equestrian sport’s governing body, has publicly confirmed that riders have the freedom to compete in the new team-based Global Champions League (GCL) launching in 2016. The Belgian Competition Authority (BCA) already ordered the FEI to communicate this formally and publicly by Aug. 31 [2015]. Because the FEI failed to communicate in accordance with the decision of the BCA, the BCA ordered the FEI to do so, or face a penalty fine.”

The advisory concludes with a cow kick: “The FEI claimed its credibility would be undermined if GCL went ahead but in its ruling the Court of Appeal rejected this and stated: ‘Any undermining of the credibility of the FEI as the sport’s governing body is not a consequence of the decision, but a risk to which the FEI has exposed itself by engaging in, in addition to its governing function, the marketing of equestrian competitions.'”

The regional skirmish has hitched its wagon to a broader EU sport proceeding. The European Commission has opened a formal anti-trust investigation into the International Skating Union (ISU), which imposes a “lifetime ban” from competitions including the Olympics for athletes that take part in non-ISU events and the FEI is filing interested party briefs and pressing for a coherent application of EU anti-trust rules that can be applied to its own situation. In previous statements, the FEI has expressed confidence that the results will “provide guidance for national competition authorities and/or national courts for dealing with future cases.”



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