David Owen ©ITG

Often when I meet those who have scrambled to the top of international sport's greasy pole, I conclude that they are politicians first and administrators second.

After 90 minutes in company of Ingmar De Vos in his pleasant third-floor office in the Lausanne headquarters building gifted to the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) by his predecessor as President, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, I am left with the strong sense that with the 55-year-old Belgian, it is the other way around. This is even though he began his career in mainstream politics.

This order of priorities equips him well, I think, for a period when sport in general and the Olympic Movement in particular is having to battle hard to cling onto the prominent and privileged role in society to which it ascended over a century or more. Suddenly glitz and hyperbole are out, better governance and a healthy awareness that sport is not the only thing are in.

Having established himself as an indispensable figure in equestrianism, to the point where his bid for a second term as FEI President at Tuesday's (November 20) General Assembly in Bahrain is unopposed, I would expect De Vos to emerge in coming years as an increasingly prominent voice in the conclaves and debates that will shape sport and Olympism's short-term future.

How did I reach the conclusion in paragraph one? There are two reasons. First, in a conversation of that length you notice what most animates your interlocutor. De Vos was never more animated than in describing to me an administrators' course the FEI had hosted the previous week as part of a drive he has spearheaded to develop its role as a service organisation.

"We had 27 people from 17 nationalities on a course for National Federation administrators and secretary generals…for us to explain to them what we are doing, what we can do for them, how they can have an efficient relationship with the FEI and for us to understand what their needs are," he enthuses. "It was intensive, but when we closed the course on Friday after lunch, they all stayed for further discussions with various departments."

The second reason is his response when I ask him about his background and whether he had a personal grounding with horses. This was on grounds that his Wikipedia biography dwelt very largely on his administrative credentials.

Ingmar De Vos is running unopposed for another term as International Equestrian Federation President ©Getty Images
Ingmar De Vos is running unopposed for another term as International Equestrian Federation President ©Getty Images

"I don't want to highlight that too much," he says, "because my grandfather had a racing stable and of course I was involved, not on a daily or weekly basis, it was more like in the holiday times because it was quite far from where I lived.

"Yes I was in contact with horses. My father was a jockey, so we have horses in our blood in the family for many years.

"I don't want to highlight that. I mean I don't call myself a rider even though I ride still now, leisure. I don't see myself as a rider.

"I was never a competitor. The fact I am here has nothing to do with the fact that I still sometimes sit on a horse.

"I am really coming from, I would say, the organisers. I organised many events in my life. I was Chef d’équipe, Chef de mission, administrator of a National Federation, secretary general of a National Federation.

"So I have seen many aspects of it. That of course gives me an advantage because I think I understand what are the needs of National Federations; I think I understand what are the needs of organisers; I think I understand what are the needs of our athletes, of our officials.

"So that is a very helpful background."

We are meeting soon after the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Tryon, North Carolina - an event disrupted by severe weather in the form of Hurricane Florence. In spite of this, De Vos is largely upbeat in assessing how things went.

"First of all, we had fantastic sports," he says. "We have never had such an exciting team competition in showjumping and dressage.

"So from a sports perspective I think everything went very well, maybe with the exception of endurance, but that's not a story. In the three Olympic disciplines we had great sport…

"Weather conditions of course - is it climate change? - were a challenge.

"The hurricane came to us, so we had to adapt our competition programme. Weather conditions also created some difficulties for the organisers to get everything ready in time, but from a sports perspective, facilities were perfect…

"We sent our team over much earlier than normally intended. We had our secretary general over there already I think five or six weeks before the event to support the Organising Committee."

With hindsight, one might question the wisdom of staging such a large and complex event in the eastern United States in Atlantic hurricane season, but Tryon was a late stand-in for Bromont in Quebec.

In his 16-page Presidential programme for 2018-2022, De Vos makes clear that one of the main reasons for the thorough evaluation currently being conducted into the future of the WEG is the difficulty of finding organisers capable of organising "an event of such magnitude".

The FEI must, he says, "have the courage to look at the future of our World Championships and ask if the WEG is still the best format…whereas we still would promote multi-disciplinary bids, we must ask ourselves if it is still realistic to impose a model integrating all our disciplines in one event.

"If we want to be successful we need to have a model that creates competition and can interest a lot of organisers rather than having to fight to find and motivate one organiser for WEG."

So what about that endurance fiasco when the competition ended up being cancelled on the opening day of the WEG after it initially had to be restarted in the wake of athletes being misdirected at the start of the ride? Indeed, I suggest, hasn't endurance been responsible for an inordinate number of the FEI's recent problems, especially given that it is a relatively minor discipline?

I am a little taken aback by the force of De Vos's response.

"Let's not say it is a relatively minor discipline," he upbraids me. "It is the second-biggest…I think in showjumping, which is our biggest discipline, we have about 1,600 international events every year. In endurance, we have about 900. If we then talk about eventing, we have something like 400. So it is not a minor discipline - one.

The endurance discipline has presented challenges for the sport ©Getty Images
The endurance discipline has presented challenges for the sport ©Getty Images

"Secondly, it is a relatively recent discipline in our organisation, which has known exponential growth. It is an important sport in the Middle East, but the season in the Middle East is very limited because of the climate. So I would say it is a lot in Europe, a lot in South America. It is also in Africa because it is a relatively easy discipline to practice: you do not need a lot of infrastructure.

"So it is an important discipline with tremendous growth. I think the problems we encounter in endurance are the result of this exponential growth. But, yes, over the four years - and it is our responsibility - we have had to address many things.

"But I think we made also a lot of progress there: much stricter rules; a lot of protocols in place; independent supervision of the events; better education of the officials; sanctions.

"It was not my easiest decision when I was elected President, but I suspended United Arab Emirates. So we took our responsibility there. But we are not here for the easy things. We are here to take our responsibility and we will do that also in endurance…

"Let me say one thing: maybe Tryon was not the biggest day for endurance sport. But for horse welfare, for me, it was the greatest day because we had the procedures in place to take the only justifiable decision we had to make, which was to stop the race at a certain moment.

"We were constantly measuring humidity and heat, and we set some red lines in these parameters. And when we saw at a certain moment…that humidity and temperature went up to limits where we said this is not acceptable anymore - we were monitoring in the vet gates horses coming in and horses having difficulty in recovering because, due to the rain, the track changed and became more difficult for the horses - based on these parameters, we decided proactively, before anything happened to a horse, to stop the race. That was the only right thing to do.

"As I said, maybe not the greatest day for endurance sport, but for horse welfare a great day."

The FEI has now set up a Committee to conduct an urgent assessment of the endurance discipline and suggest a path forward.

Says De Vos: "What happened in Tryon was a bit of a trigger again to start a process of reviewing the discipline and to bring it more in line with the principles that we want to have in our sport, in our organisation, where horse welfare is the first priority, but also where horsemanship prevails.

"We see now some people want to drive this discipline into a racing competition and we see it more as a riding competition where horsemanship prevails."

De Vos is anxious not to pre-empt the Committee, but he acknowledges that one idea is for eligibility for events to be on the basis of a combination of horse and rider, "not separate". Such a change, he said, "would already increase horsemanship".

“We want a ride, we don't want to have a flat race," he added. "There are other organisations that do racing. That is their sport. Maybe instead of going for a fastest time, we could work towards what we have had for many years in eventing, an ideal time. But I don't want to pre-empt the conclusions of the Committee."

Equestrian sport is showing healthy growth. The number of athletes and horses competing at international level is said to have risen 28 per cent in five years, while around 37 million people worldwide take part in one equestrian discipline or another at least once a week. This all helps to feed a huge underlying industry. Equestrianism also stands out as a sport with a majority female fan base.

Even so, De Vos puts development high on his list of priorities. This is partly in the context of consolidating equestrian sport's position in the Olympics and Paralympics. As he says in his 2018-2022 programme, "universality and increasing the global reach and popularity of our sport are the big challenges". The FEI has pumped close to CHF14 million (£11 million/$14 million/€12.3 million) into its Solidarity apparatus since its establishment in 2012.

But this is a sport where geographic expansion, however, desirable, is particularly hard work. As De Vos explains, "there is a specific complicated issue we have with the fact that we have two athletes, the human and the equine…we have problems developing our sport to have important international events [outside Europe and North America] due to transport and quarantine restrictions."

Ingmar De Vos became a member of the International Olympic Committee last year ©Getty Images
Ingmar De Vos became a member of the International Olympic Committee last year ©Getty Images

Headway is being made. "We have established a kind of manual of bio-security for the high-performance horses in which is laid down what are the measures that are effective and necessary, addressing a broad range of situations that can appear," De Vos says. "We have different situations in Africa and Asia for instance, but that is covered in there.

"Also the establishment of a worldwide universal veterinary certificate for our horses…I think in the end we will end up with a couple of them, depending on the region and the specific situation."

Furthermore, "we are now investing in organising regional conferences…where we bring the veterinary authorities of the countries of that region together with our national head veterinarians and with representatives of the customs authorities to explain what we are doing…

"Transport and quarantine is really for us a very big challenge. We made already a lot of progress, but this is really hindering our development."

As I observe at one point, this is a lot for a simple international sports federation to have on its plate.

Irrespective of the direction of future reforms of sport's anti-doping regime, meanwhile, the FEI's USP as the governing body of horse sports means that this too will remain an important string in its bow for the foreseeable future.

While testing of riders will be done by the new International Testing Agency, as De Vos puts it, "the horse side we do ourselves because there is no other authority". There are five FEI-accredited laboratories - in Paris, Newmarket, Hong Kong, Australia and the United States. The Federation's anti-doping budget is about CHF4.5 million (£3.5 million/$4.5 million/€4 million), but the activity also generates about the same in revenue.

"One of the changes I made when elected was to go to a worldwide anti-doping programme," De Vos says. "Before it was only in specific regions of the world.

"The user pays. The athlete or the owner of the horse contributes to the programme each time they participate in an international event. Very clearly this revenue is ring-fenced: it cannot be used for anything else."

This continued involvement means that De Vos' appointment last week to the Executive Committee of the World Anti-Doping Agency makes good sense.

As can be the way in sports administration, when word gets around that an individual is competent and willing, s/he can quickly find that s/he is wearing an increasing number of hats. De Vos became an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member in September of last year and was recently appointed to the Council of the Global Association of International Sports Federations.

While it is important for equestrianism to demonstrate its global span when the world is watching by accommodating competitors from as many countries as possible in its Olympic and Paralympic competitions, at present it is obliged to do this without benefiting from increased Olympic quotas. This tension broadly explains the format changes introduced for Tokyo 2020.

As De Vos explains, even though your sport may have grown, you cannot have a bigger quota of athletes. "We still have to do it with a quota of 200," he says, "200 for three disciplines, team and individual events.

Like other sports, equestrian faces the challenge of expanding its international reach while keeping within Olympic quotas ©Getty Images
Like other sports, equestrian faces the challenge of expanding its international reach while keeping within Olympic quotas ©Getty Images

"In the past we could accommodate something like 40 countries in our sport," he continues. "But as you know the IOC is also now evaluating all sports…based on consumption, sale of television rights, hits on the website and so on, and we are there in a difficult situation because to accommodate 40 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) with universality in the background, we need to try to increase it. But how can we do it if we cannot increase the quota?

"So what we did was reduce the number of athletes in a team from four to three and [abolish] the dropped score. Now we can accommodate in the three disciplines more teams, more athletes, more flags, more NOCs. If more territories are participating, they are consequently interested in buying the television rights - which generates revenue for the IOC, which then hopefully comes back to us... 

"During the Olympic Games, you live in a very competitive world with all these sports in all these territories. There is a lot of supply of television and, let's be honest, if your country is not participating in a sport, you are less interested in buying the television rights of that sport."

De Vos is also alive to the potential of new technology for further popularising the sport, by - to give one example - speeding up the complicated business of totting up dressage scores. A different application enables spectators sitting in the stands to award their own marks and compare them to the judges' verdict.

"Technology can help us a lot to involve people and have them better understand our sport," De Vos says. "We are working a lot on this, especially in dressage."