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Thursday, October 30, 2008

New Places, Same Faces – From GDF to La France

Well, here I am in Lyon for the next leg of my adventure: the CSI 5* and CDI 5*, followed by the WBFSH AGM. Well, I’m not really in Lyon and so far I don’t feel the France spirit (though my room service dinner was awfully good last night) unless I think about how a group of people sat in the row immediately in front of me in an almost empty stadium this morning. I’ve been put in Novotel, way out on the outer fringes (but necessarily near the competition). Those of you familiar with Novotel know that it does its very best to replicate the generic blandness of most North American hotel chains. But I’m not whining, honest. The bed is comfy and the hosts of this competition have picked up my hotel tab – which is pretty darned fine of them. Hell, the Royal won’t even give its media visitors parking passes.

What I do feel, however, is that either I’m following these people around…or I can be paranoid and self-obsessed and imagine that they are following me. The ground jury looks a lot like Hong Kong, and includes our old friend Herr Riexinger, as well as Ghislain Fouarges and Barnabas Mandi - with whom I had a lovely chat, and I do mean LOVELY, in the car on the way to the hotel last night (but more on that later). And of course, Mme. Withages was smilingly sitting at C for the Grand Prix this morning. And I don’t know how she did it, but Laura Bechtolsheimer, one of the few international riders to hang out at the GDF this year, managed to get from there on Tuesday to here and ride a lovely test this morning on a horse called Andretti H. I have lots of stuff about today, but I know you want to first hear about the rest of the GDF.

My Tolerance Cup Runneth Over

Ok, I have really had to give my head a firm shake. All this fear factor about the judges running after me with weapons had me almost cowed into not writing what I really think. Gary, I’m sorry I didn’t go up and re-introduce myself to you. I know you don’t like me very much, but I never wrote a nasty word about you in reference to the Brentina story. I didn’t see the test and I only blog about things I saw. FYI, there are only two things in my blog besides the odd photo: facts (objective) and my opinions (subjective). It’s not journalism, although I suspect the blog may be more widely read than any one of my magazine articles. So I’m just going to keep writing what I think and let the consequences be what they may.

The GDF this year indeed took a step back in the dialogue, but I’m afraid it can’t just be blamed on the judges. Joep Bartels told me at the end of last year’s GDF that the one group that was under-represented in the audience was the riders – and this year it was even worse. I’m not sure why they are so reluctant, but there is little doubt that part if it is due to not wanting to see themselves on enormous screens being minutely scrutinized – of course they are all on youtube, but that’s not the same. Yes, it’s a tough and possibly bitter pill, but without the most important participants that have the power of speech, it’s a bit like skipping rope with only one person holding one end of the rope.

But there sure were a LOT of judges around this year. I think most of them went to the presentation by the gymnastics guy, but they ALL seemed to be at the “How to Become an Olympic Judge” speech by Dieter Schule that probably discouraged more people than it encouraged. So here is how the judge-o-mania second morning went.

The gymnastics guy raised a pile of interesting points; they didn’t all say bad stuff about dressage, either. It was clear that some of the problems in figure skating and gymnastics have already been addressed in dressage – yes I really mean it. It was also clear that although the sports share many of the same issues, it’s still kind of apples and oranges. Yes, we can take a page from their book, but dressage is unique and just copying the judging system of those sports is not the answer. My question to the speaker was to ask him what motivated the changes to the other sports, and where the athletes fit into the picture. His answer came as no great surprise to me but I was glad he said it in front of so many people: he replied that those sports have technical committees to oversee and review and that they have balanced representation – including athletes and trainers, not just judges.

101 Reasons Not to Try Becoming an Olympic Judge

As I said, Mariette had an FEI date to keep and couldn’t stay for the second day (but she and I have already had a chat here in Lyon, which I will talk about later when it’s all sunk in) so Dieter Schule was therefore completely free to show us how little he is interested in change. Apart from a short but interesting bit from Wim Ernes about the Dutch dressage judging qualification system (yes, it’s progressive), Dr. Schule was the main event. And even though we had JUST learned a bunch of ideas from the gymnastics guy (he has a name but you won’t recognize it and it’s hard to spell), Dr. Schule could not bring himself to agree that many things needed to change in the system. In fact, every time he did mention proposals for change in that context, he immediately refuted them by saying why he thought that particular change is a bad idea. And when Jean Michel Roudier (one of the Olympic judges who never drew my attention with his marks) and Bernard Maurel (interesting, both French judges) made suggestions, Schule was steadfastly against them. Here are just two of the things that came up:

  1. Roudier brought up the issue with how riders get their FEI certificate of capability – the 64% from a single O judge on a panel. As he pointed out, putting all the eggs in a single judge’s basket goes very much against the gymnastic’s guy’s point about equalizing the judging by not letting one judge’s marks count for too much. In this case the O judge counts exclusively. Roudier’s proposal is that they take the panel average, as long as it includes an O judge. Dr. Schule basically betrayed that he doesn’t have faith in some of the I judges, by replying that a panel average may include scores from not-very-good judges, or candidate judges, or a judge from the rider’s own country. Dr. Schule’s answer? No change. Or maybe, if there are 2 or 3 O judges on the panel then use an average from them. That could mean an awfully hectic schedule for the world’s 25 or so O judges. And Schule himself said that judges shouldn’t just fly around from gig to gig, but that they need to stay involved in the sport on other levels, like as trainers (Which as Roudier also pointed out, raises another problem of conflict of interest, but enough already).

  2. Maurel raised the potential accusation of age discrimination with the current age limit of judges not being over 70 (I think that is the limit but not positive). Schule said that without an age limit there would be “no rotation, no new judges coming up.” Well, after the qualification process he had just outlined, a judge coming from the retired rider ranks (isn’t that where we want them coming from?) would be nearing that age by the time he or she qualified to be an O judge. The process is a very long one, and Dr. Schule didn’t sound like he wanted to see that changed, either.

One thing Dr. Schule said rather a lot that morning was how correct the judging was in Hong Kong. He also mentioned several times the name David Stickland. I had never heard of Mr. Stickland, but Claartje van Andel from Dressage Direct got up and explained to those of us in the dark that he is the husband of an American dressage rider, and that he (being some kind of astro-physicist or other amazing breed of mathematical genius) has developed a statistical model to analyze judging results. What he discovered was that of the past three Olympics, the judges at these Games were the closest to one another they’ve ever been. And according to Dr. Schule, and others, that equals good judging. He did point out, though, that statistics alone do not indicate good judging – using the full range of marks and making useful comments are not measured by Stickland’s stats, and should be taken into consideration. Agreed! So now I want to meet Mr. Stickland, who is apparently here in Lyon.

Yes We Love You Hubertus

The judging sessions left me a bit dry in the mouth, not because I was open mouthed with awe at the ground-breaking going on, but because I became slack jawed from the lack of stimulation. And I just knew there wouldn’t be a big blow out caused by Hubertus’ session, the grand finale of this year’s GDF. I’ll say it again: I love watching that man train a horse. And his Finnish working student (now there is a working student position to be truly envious of) rode her five year old horse with the same softness and harmony as her mentor. But all this desire to get the riders back to the table perhaps caused the praise to go a bit over the top. I think Hubertus was told he was fantastic so many times the word may have lost meaning for him. You know how if you say a word over and over and over it starts to sound like it’s not a word any more?

At the end there was just one thing that lingered in my mind that didn’t sit quite right. Hubertus rode a great big dark Grand Prix horse I’ve never seen called Franziskus. Everything was peachy to me….except the horse’s walk. I saw a lateral walk. But apparently I was the only one; and the journos have been painted so black at recent forums for being awful to riders who come and bare themselves to the world, that there was no way I was going to ask about it. Someone else did, but in a very, very careful way. It was Bernard Maurel (I think I might be getting to like him in spite of how grumpy he seemed in Blainville), and he said that being a judge he felt he always needed to find something….so why didn’t Hubertus work on the walk more in his demo? Hubertus answered that he couldn’t work on everything in such a short time (very true), and that the horse had a very big walk, adding that his collected walk is even better. Maybe I don’t know how to find the magic ‘V’ or to see a truly regular four beat walk. Yeah, it must be me.

Ok, so that’s it for today. Now I need a strong drink and to pull my thoughts together for tomorrow’s blog, which will be entirely dedicated to three judges who not only didn’t kill me today, but who actually told me some interesting, enlightening and relevant things. Things that make you go hm.

A demain!

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