It’s Time To End The World Equestrian Games

The 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games concluded last week in Normandy, France, so now is a good time for me to join the small chorus suggesting that it’s time to put an end to this 24-year attempt to create an “equestrian Olympic Games.” It doesn’t work well enough to continue—at least it doesn’t work in the ways that it was intended to work, and it doesn’t work in a way that’s going to expand the public popularity of horse sports.

For a WEG to be fan success, the facility has to have the physical infrastructure to accommodate tens of thousands of people for three weeks.

I covered the 1994 WEG in The Hague (the Netherlands), the 1998 WEG in Rome and the 2002 WEG in Jerez de la Frontera (Spain) as a reporter and photographer, and I worked on the media staff in 2010 in Lexington, Ky., so I’ve experienced first-hand the both the high level of competition and the organizational disasters that is the WEG. I’ve written critically about three WEGs as a horseman and as a working journalist, and I’ve been a part of the organization staging the event and taken the criticism. 

So I think it’s time to return to the old World Championship scheme: Have separate championships for each of the seven FEI disciplines, instead of trying to stage them all in one mega-event.

The motivation for creating the WEG almost 30 years ago was two-fold: To create a “festival of the competition horse,” an Olympic-like event devoted entirely to the horse. It was supposed to bring various economies of scale to the organization of these championships, to make it more economically possible for nations to stage them, and to help promote equestrian sports and, especially, the non-Olympic disciplines.

But neither has happened. The WEG has never achieved the desired economies of scale. It’s too big, but it’s not big enough.

The most annoying problem is food: It’s never, ever been good at the WEG. Even at Kentucky, I’ll admit, the food was at best bland and overpriced.

Why? It’s too many people for too many days to have the usual food vendors, the people who make an equestrian competition fun to be at by providing a variety of tasty treats. Instead, you get one firm providing a bland, unchanging and expensive menu, because a vendor large enough to provide food for 25,000 to 50,000 people every day for a fortnight will always require total monopoly. Because the only way they can make a profit is to be able to buy food in huge volume, so they can afford to pay the staff and for the equipment they’ll need to serve all those meals.

But they and organizers are playing a guessing game on the amount of food they’ll need, because they don’t have historical numbers to go on since the WEG has always been a one-time event. They can plan for 25,000 meals a day, but what if late ticket sales surge? Then they don’t have enough. Or it rains, people don’t come, then they’ve lost money.

There was never sufficient food on the grounds in Jerez (my staff and I all lost weight, and the only thing that saved us was that I could walk to a grocery store about a mile away and bring back food). And I’m told the food situation was even more dire in Normandy.

Transportation, parking and hotels are challenges common to any large event (including the Olympics). In The Hague and Rome, the fact that the games were in large cities reduced the problem, because public transportation took fans and press right to the main stadiums, but in Rome the eventing and driving were more than an hour outside the city, and housing was scarce and very rustic. Jerez was a transportation nightmare—we spent more than three hours a day riding the bus from our hotel to either of the two venues.

In Lexington, fans could park relatively close to the Kentucky Horse Park, and our shuttle buses were pretty efficient, but finding accommodations was tough, and expensive, and could be far down the interstate. Plus, Rolex Kentucky fans who usually stayed in the excellent campgrounds there were disappointed that that space was designated only for competitors and staff.

There’s no savings in WEG ticket prices either, because of the staggering cost of staging it, and that discourages fans from coming. In 2010, we were anticipating an American equestrian celebration of epic proportions, but the cost of going to it and being there decidedly dampened the numbers. Of course, the economic collapse of 2008 destroyed a lot of the planning that had gone on before then, but neither the organizers nor local businesses were able to offer lower prices for tickets, rooms and more, because the expected economies of scale just didn’t happen.

We still had more than 500,000 fans come through the gate, but a sizeable percentage of those were specially discounted tickets (even free for school children) to help pump the numbers up. And, even though it turned out to be an American success story, the 2010 WEG still ended up more than $1 million in the red. I don’t know how much money the others lost, but I don’t think any have broken even.

I’d say that every WEG has been largely successful from a horseman’s and competitive point of view—good to excellent arenas and courses, good to excellent stabling, good to excellent transportation for the horses, adequate to good accommodations for the riders. And many extraordinary moments of competition.

But where the WEG has never been a success is for the fans and the media, as I’ve described above. Some have been better than others—Lexington and Aachen (2006) and Stockholm (1990) were far, far better than the public-relations disasters of Jerez, The Hague, Rome or Normandy.

For a WEG to be fan success, the facility has to have the physical infrastructure—stadiums, barns and other buildings, roads and transportation, electricity, communications, water/sewer—to accommodate tens of thousands of people for three weeks. Aachen and Lexington have both, although they’re short on nearby hotel rooms. Jerez and Normandy, in particular, had only the bare bones of this infrastructure. So when the people came, they couldn’t accommodate them.

The roads and parking in Normandy were so bad that on cross-country day people spent six or more hours sitting in the cars on access roads and arrived at the course just in time to see the last few horses. Of course they’re furious and want refunds.

Looking ahead to 2018 in Bromont, Quebec, I see nothing but disaster. The FEI inexplicably chose Bromont over Lexington for 2018, even though Bromont has almost none of this infrastructure. Bromont has only one large arena (left over from the 1976 Olympics); Bromont has no indoor arena for reining and vaulting (the Kentucky Horse Park – KHP – built their indoor arena to accommodate those two sports); Bromont has no permanent stabling at all (KHP has more than 1,000 permanent stalls); but the biggest thing is that there are no medium-sized to large hotels within an hour of Bromont, and the roads are entirely insufficient to move large volumes of traffic. Staying there and getting there will be a nightmare.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to predict that Bromont 2018 is going to make people wish they were back in Normandy. It’s certainly going to make the FEI look foolish for choosing Bromont over Lexington.

So I’m going to urge that, following the organizational disaster that was Normandy, the FEI pull the plug on Bromont—now—and open up the seven World Championships to individual bidders. Admit that it’s a failed experiment and move on.

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