The Tryon International Equestrian Center should have been the perfect location for the eighth FEI World Equestrian Games. It had much-praised stabling, plenty of arenas and several years as a competition venue. But with an ambitious building plan under way, rumors on social media swirled for months that the facility wouldn’t be ready. When riders and horses arrived for the first week of the WEG, it was still a construction site.
“It was like Beirut last week,” British dressage rider Carl Hester observed on Sept. 13, referring to how the place looked days before the competition was scheduled to begin. Things improved, and he praised the venue in terms of its accommodations and arenas for horses, but first impressions are lasting.
Although Week Two seems like smooth sailing now that many wrinkles have been ironed out and the weather has improved, Week One was very rough. There was construction equipment everywhere for the first few days. Cancellation of the endurance race due to hot, humid weather and a botched start, publicity about substandard grooms’ quarters and the impending arrival of Hurricane Florence made for a difficult time, along with what some characterized as lack of organization.
WEG is tough enough to put together under the best of circumstances.
“I think the WEG is a very, very challenging product. I’m not convinced in its current format anyone can do it. It’s a huge undertaking,” said Michael Stone, president of the Tryon 2018 organizing committee.
“The number of people you have to entertain, the number of people you have to host, the complications with transport and housing. Everything falls on the organizer. It not only is a financial burden, but it is also an enormous logistical burden for people who have never done it before. It’s the same every WEG.”
On the other hand, he noted, “We organize competitions all the time, so I’d like to think the competition side of it has gone pretty smoothly. It’s within our scope of what we’re good at,” he commented.
“Trying to do something in 18 months that should be done in four years is an even bigger undertaking,” he pointed out, referring to the fact that Tryon wasn’t even awarded the WEG until the autumn of 2016, after the original host, Bromont in Canada, could not get sufficient financial backing to continue.
“I’m not saying it would have been better if we had four years to do it. We’re owning responsibility for it,” Michael added quickly.
“You can buy everything, but you can’t buy time,” he continued. “We tried to get so much done, we just weren’t able to. It’s a knock-on effect. Once the first bit did look bad, as it continues, you get caught in that putting Band-aids on things.”
On the other hand, there was much praise for stabling and competition venues, as well as the competition itself. Michael cited Saturday’s cross-country day, which he called “fantastic.” He noted there were none of the problems, such as monumental traffic jams and the lack of catering and toilet facilities that plagued cross-country at the 2014 WEG in Normandy, France.
“We got people in and got them out,” said Michael.
Estimates were that 15,000 spectators came out to the cross-country course. That’s a relatively small number for one of the WEG’s biggest drawing cards. And at this point, it seems unlikely that the event will bring in the total of 500,000 spectators that was projected in pre-WEG publicity
“The weather put huge numbers of people off,” said Michael, and indeed, the dire warnings about Hurricane Florence that dominated the air waves and social media for days didn’t help.
Michael also felt some potential attendees were discouraged by “the fact that there was uncertainty about the venue; a lot of media reports that the venue wasn’t going to be ready.” That wasn’t conducive to people spending a lot of money to fly in, and “rumors of no accommodations” didn’t help.
“Put all those things together, that’s where you end up,” he said.
Sjef janssen, chef d’equipe of the Belgian dressage team, noted that after the endurance debacle, the European newspapers “were hitting on” the WEG, adding, “that’s not good for our sport.” On the other hand, he pointed out that the limited amount of time that Tryon had to get everything finished was “mission impossible,” and he would like to see the concept go back to individual or combined world championships.
He has a lot of company with that though. Eventing cross-country course designer Mark Phillips, for instance, suggested pairing compatible disciplines, such as putting driving with eventing, since there are a lot of similarities between marathon and cross-country courses.
One man with FEI connections observed that since endurance is really racing, and the FEI is not a racing organization, that discipline should be dropped.
Thinking back about the Week One problems, Michael commented, “Unfortunately, we got off to such a bad start with endurance that was actually no fault of the organizer, it was just a succession of mistakes. That set a tone at the very beginning that was very negative. The grooms’ accommodations not being ready was a major upset as well. So you combine those two factors and that is what got us off to such a rocky start. Then you throw in Florence.”
The next disaster to hit the WEG’s first week was cancellation of the dressage freestyle because of predictions of heavy rain last Sunday, when it was scheduled.
The weather services called for torrential rain, and organizers envisioned that the parking lots would have been flooded by the storm. They were.
“It wasn’t torrential like we were told, but it was consistent. It never stopped,” said Michael.
Citing “the difficulty we would have had to in trying get spectators in–and their experience would have been awful–and even if we got them in, we probably couldn’t have gotten them out,” there was no way around cancellation.
“The risk of injury, people getting hurt, things blowing down,” Michael said, mentioning reasons for not holding the freestyle during the storm on Sunday.
While the organizers wanted to run it Monday, the day to which the eventing show jumping was postponed, the schedule for planes taking horses back to Europe made it impossible.
“The dressage teams, because they were flying out, felt it wasn’t worth it,” Michael said, noting competition takes a lot out of horses and it wouldn’t have been right to put them on a plane for a long flight just hours after they did their freestyles. The eventing horses were not scheduled to leave until Tuesday.
“We looked at every solution, we looked at putting it indoors. At the end of the day, nothing worked,” he said.
So what to do about the WEG?
He thinks it could survive “If it was cut down with less teams and it was much more condensed, and (the FEI) put some of the more exotic events somewhere else or didn’t do them at all and burden was split among all the different countries.” In that scenario, he proposed, “countries would pay for their own accommodations and transport or get an allowance to do it themselves. But that’s not the way the WEGs have been organized to date and that’s a huge difficulty.”