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Canadian Olympic Campaign Rollercoaster: Eventing Edition

Editorial

With question marks still hanging over the Canadian Dressage Olympic selection process (see here ), we now shift our attention to the Canadian Eventers.

Unfortunately the Canadian Eventing Committee is also no stranger to issues when it comes to team selection, and it looks like the naming of the 2016 Rio Olympic team will be no exception.

Although Equine Canada won't be officially announcing the team until July 14th, "word on the street" is that the team set to gallop over the Rio cross-country course is:

Rebecca Howard & Riddle Master
Rebecca and Riddle Master first represented Canada at the Olympics Games in 2012. Following these London Games, Rebecca moved her operation to England and based herself with New Zealand's Tim & Jonelle Price. The duo have tackled some of Eventing's toughest cross-country courses including Badminton, Burghley and Luhmühlen.  In 2013, Rebecca was named Equine Canada Equestrian of the Year, and Riddle Master was awarded the Canadian Bred Horse of the Year.

Selena O’Hanlon & Foxwood High
Selena O'Hanlon made her Olympic debut at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games with Columbo. The pair then went on to be a part of the 2010 Silver Medal World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. In 2011 Selena again helped to bring home Team Silver, this time at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico and her first major games team outing with Foxwood High. After narrowly missing a spot on the 2012 London Olympic team, Selena & Foxwood High were a member of the team who travelled to Normandy, France to compete at the 2014 World Equestrian Games who ultimately helped secure a team qualification spot for Canada at the Rio Olympics. In 2015, the pair were named as first reserve for the Toronto Pan American Games Eventing team. 

Sidebar: Selena O'Hanlon actually replaced previously named reserve rider Stuart Black who was arrested during the team's pre Pan-Am training camp for allegedly committing domestic assault. After a court appearance, Black was found not guilty and the charges withdrawn. [ read coverage here ]. The naming of Black as the reserve rider was in itself controversial. Equine Canada did not originally include Black's name on the Pan Am team roster official announcement due to the fact that his sport nationality status with the Pan American Sport Organization (PASO), the governing body of the Pan American Games, still listed him as American. Black first changed his nationality to Canadian back in 1977 when he moved from England, then switched to ride for the USA when he became a U.S. citizen in 2004. He then obtained a Canadian passport in December 2014 to switch back to being a Canadian citizen in order to be considered for the 2015 Pan Am Games.

Foxwood High has his own Olympic connections. The Canadian Sporthorse gelding was bred by Canadian Olympic Showjumper Hugh Graham, and is owned by John & Judy Rumble. John rode in the 1956 Stockholm Olympics earning a Bronze medal for Canada.

Colleen Loach & Qorry Blue d’Argouges
The 2015 Toronto Pan American Games were the first time that Colleen was named to a major games team, and it was with Qorry Blue d'Argouges that she helped Canada win a Team Silver medal. A graduate of the Young Riders program, Colleen's first Olympic experience was at the 2012 London Games where she groomed for Canadian Olympian Peter Barry, who is also the owner of Qorry. Colleen also groomed for Peter at the 2014 World Equestrian Games.

Kathryn Robinson & Let It Bee
Kathryn and Let it Bee, who are based in England, have been consistenty knocking on the door of a major games team. The duo represented Canada at the Olympic test event in 2011, held at Greenwich Park.  After terrific European results in early 2014, the pair were announced by Equine Canada as part of the team competing at the 2014 World Equestrian Games. A mere ten days later, Kathryn was informed by Equine Canada that she was in fact ineligible as she had not submitted her paperwork by the required date creating a public outcry as to how Equine Canada could make such an error when selecting the team.  In 2015, Kathryn was again named to a major games team - this time the 2015 Pan American Games where Canada won Team Silver.  

Non-Competing Reserve - Jessica Phoenix
One of the most decorated Canadian eventing athletes in recent years, Jessica is a graduate of the Young Rider program who has been a member of almost every major games team since her debut at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio. In 2010, Jessica helped Canada to a Team Silver performance at the 2010 World Equestrian Games with Exponential. The following year, Jessica represented Canada at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico where she and her partner Pavarotti brought home individual Gold and team Silver medals. At the 2012 London Olympic Games, Jessica and Exponential were the highest placing Canadians and were pivotal in Canada securing a 13th team result. Jessica was awarded the 2012 Equestrian of the Year by Equine Canada. 2014 saw Jessica paired with Pavarotti again, this time at the World Equestrian Games in France where again they were the highest placing Canadians. And in 2015, Jessica brought home individual Bronze and team Silver medals at the Pan American Games in Toronto with Pavarotti. 

Non-Competing Reserve - Waylon Roberts
Waylon is another very successful graduate of the Young Riders program. The Olympics run in his veins as his parents are Canadian Olympians Ian Roberts (2004) and Kelli Plitz (1984). Waylon was the youngest member of the 2007 Pan American Games team in Rio who brought home a team silver medal. In 2011, Waylon competed at the Olympic test event held at Greenwich Park, England. 2015 saw Waylon as part of the Silver medal team at the Toronto Pan American Games. Waylon also has the unique distinction of winning the Canadian Indoor Eventing Championships a record 8 times.

Olympic Appeal

You'll notice that a big name left off the competing team list is Olympian and multi-Pan Am medalist Jessica Phoenix, who has 4 qualified horses: A Little Romance, Bentley's Best, Pavarotti and Abbey GS. Jessica has reportedly appealed the decision although there is no word yet (official or unofficial) as to the outcome of the appeal.

 

Top Secret Criteria Strikes Again

As with Dressage, Eventing's Olympic criteria was made top secret for the first time for a Major Games which has come under fire both for the obvious lack of transparency, as well as for putting athletes under a "gag order".

Criticism has been levelled at Equine Canada for this unusual decision, which is in contravention of the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre's policy that criteria must be made public in the interest of transparency and to lower the risk of disputes. [ SDRCC Selection Criteria Policy ]

Another first is having the Team Coach (Clayton Fredericks) a member of the Team Selection Committee, a move made last fall for these Games. Most countries expressly do not include their Team Coach on the selection committee so as to prevent any conflict of interest and ensure a very open & collaborative working environment between the Team Coach and the athletes. While the Team Coach is certainly consulted to provide information about the development, preparedness and potential of declared athletes, he/she is not typically a member of the deciding body who ultimately chooses the team. Aside from the obvious goals of minimizing conflict of interest, and putting too much power into the hands of one individual, it also helps prevent a situation which Canada now finds themselves in where an athlete has launched an appeal against the Selection Committee. We can only imagine how this must be affecting the team dynamics with the Team coach no matter what the outcome of the appeal. This isn't helped by reports of differences between Phoenix and Fredericks noted by others at various competitions in the US as well as most recently at the Bromont CCI3* held in June.

Equine Canada Eventing Experts

While most other nations make use of experts who have a significant amount of experience within the sport of Eventing, Equine Canada again decided to deviate from what other Eventing-strong nations do when they hired Ozzie Sawicki to the role of Eventing High Performance Advisor.

According to Equine Canada, Mr. Sawicki plays "a critical role in developing a sustainable Eventing High Performance Program in all non-technical areas." Mr. Sawicki indeed boasts an impressive resume with high performance sport, however it's almost exclusively within the sport of Para-Alpine skiing and Para-Athletics. [ Coaching Association of Canada profile on Ozzie Sawicki ]

Mr. Sawicki was the lead in coordinating reform within the Canadian Eventing High Performance Program in 2015 which led to the creation of the 2016 Rio Selection Criteria,  the Team Coach being named to the Selection Committee, and the dissolution of Eventing's High Performance Committee.

At the time of the reforms being announced, Mr. Sawicki stated "The new Canadian Eventing High Performance Program is one that understands the clarity required of its athletes, coaches, owners, and many supporters. The athlete-centred and professionally directed program will certainly focus on the immediate responsibility to prepare towards Rio, but will also create the extended foundation that is fundamental in ensuring long-term success towards future Olympic, Pan American and World Equestrian Games." [ "Reform Underway for Canadian Eventing High Performance Program " ]

Why July 14th to announce the Olympic Athletes?

There has also been a great deal of chatter, both within and outside of Canada, over Equine Canada's decision to not only name Canada's Olympic Equestrian Team so late (July 14th), but to do it in conjunction with their new branding & website launch. [ The Countdown is on to July 14 ]

This is another big difference from the traditional best practices of other nations, most of whom have already named their team and none who combine it with other announcements. Typically, the announcement of our Olympic athletes is a very special moment and the spotlight is not shared with anything else. So it was very peculiar when Equine Canada's press release about the July 14th announcement first focused on the launch of the new brand, the launch of the new website, and had the announcement of the Canadian Olympic Equestrian Team last. Some have suggested that this is very disrespectful to the athlete and owners, and it's hard to disagree with that sentiment. Not only is the spotlight being diluted by other announcements, but the late date cheats athletes and their fans of the opportunity to celebrate such a monumental athletic achievement when other countries are  celebrating their athletes. 

Others have pointed to the significance of July 15th. Mid-July is when EC Vice President & Bromont WEG Board Member Tony Eames stated that "if we don't get the support, it won't happen" in reference to the Games proceeding in Bromont. Bromont needs to raise $25 million in private sector funding in addition to $8.75 million from the federal government to ensure financial viability.  [Horse-Canada.com ] Some say Equine Canada chose July 14th to combine three announcements to help deflect from any potential negative press of the FEI pulling the WEGs from Canada.

You can view some of the video interviews here regarding the funding required for Bromont 2018 WEG, although it's interesting to note that at least a couple appear to have been edited since they were orginally published. 

Internet Chatter

The chatter about Canada's issues has popped up not only on social media, but also on the internet airwaves. The most recent being on the Youtube show of top international eventers Buck Davidson and Kyle Carter where they discuss the drama that is currently unfolding in Canada. 


(Canadian Olympic team discussion starts at approx. the 7:00 mark)

It was also mentioned by multi-Olympian Karen O'Connor during the coverage of the FEI Nations Cup at Great Meadows on July 9th who remarked that the late naming of Canada's team makes it very difficult for athletes, owners and grooms to get organized and start building team unity & spirit, suggesting that this is something Canada should look at for future Games.

Eventing Connect has also provided a great overview not only of declared eventing riders FEI results during the qualifying period, but also a recap of the controversies that have plagued Canadian Eventing for the past 3 major games. [ read full article ]

 Is this good for the Sport?

In the end, it seems that the decisions of the new administration at Equine Canada has created an atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion and speculation to the detriment of building and promoting a unified team who is organized well in advance of their biggest competitive moment.

Communication also seems to be very low on Equine Canada's High Performance Department's list as a number of declared athletes were not even formally notified by EC that they had made the official Nominated Entries list (or conversely, had not been named) that was submitted to the Rio Organizers. Many athletes only found out thanks to the FEI press release and social media. 

It certainly raises questions as to the effectiveness of the increased resources Equine Canada has made during the past 2 years on new staff hires (most at the Senior level), reduction of expert volunteers, and significant internal re-structuring. 

Athletes and their owners willingly embark into a major games journey many years in advance knowing that only a select few will make the cut. Their years of personal & financial sacrifice are based on the premise that a fair and transparent process will be used to determine who will ride for the maple leaf. But when the national federation starts operating in secrecy and making highly unorthodox moves in their decision-making process, the end result is inevitably confusion, questionable decision-making, loss of confidence and the arguably worse case scenario of pitting athlete against athlete (an unavoidable side effect of appeals). This erodes faith in the sport and those who support it.

As one person commented on one of our earlier articles , the absence of a transparent selection criteria contributes to an environment which is ripe for political interference or even some level of favouritism. At best it means the outcome, no matter who is ultimately chosen, will be always questioned. This cannot be good for the sport, particulary one which is actively looking at making significant changes in the future to ensure its place on the Olympic program (a topic for another day!).

What can you do?

Some supporters have taken to Equine Canada's Facebook page to voice their concern.
In their response, EC refers to the official selection process followed by the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). This may give the impression to some that the reason for the delay is because of the COC. That train of thought would be inaccurate as the COC relies on national sport organizations to inform them of their sport's chosen athletes. These submitted names are then ratified by the COC, and the COC has been publicly announcing Canadian Olympic Team members for the Rio Olympics for at least a couple of months now. 

If you would like to publicly voice your concerns and questions to Equine Canada, we suggest posting to Equine Canada's Facebook page or by sending an email to inquiries@equinecanada.ca .  As we pointed in out in an earlier article, unlike the USEF, Equine Canada does not provide direct contact details to the President, CEO or any Directors.   

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