TRYON, North Carolina (Reuters) - Having weathered a killer hurricane that threatened to wash out the World Equestrian Games (WEG), Ingmar de Vos enjoyed a moment of calm on Saturday as he pondered a future for the flagship event that could include gladiator polo and a permanent home.
Overseeing equestrian’s most important competition outside the Olympics for the first time as president of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), De Vos endured an unusually rough ride.
Staged once every four years, the Games began in North Carolina on Sept. 12 in suffocating heat and humidity that resulted in the cancellation of the endurance event and the euthanizing of two horses.
That was followed immediately by Hurricane Florence slamming into the Carolinas, drenching the Tryon International Equestrian Center to create more scheduling chaos and the cancellation of another competition, the dressage freestyle.
There was also the distraction of an ongoing investigation triggered by an embarrassing glitch that caused riders to be sent off in the wrong direction.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach is scheduled to attend Sunday’s individual show jumping competition that will bring the curtain down on the Games.
Despite the challenges, the Games delivered, by most accounts, some of the highest quality competition ever at a world championships.
Individual show jumping is considered the WEG’s blue riband event but the climax to the team event, which was decided in a dramatic jump off for the gold between the United States and Sweden, would be hard to top.
Although not all the medals were awarded, all six Olympic berths in each of the dressage, jumping and eventing team competitions were decided.
“The most important thing is that we have had great championships and qualification in three Olympic disciplines,” De Vos told Reuters.
“I can understand the frustration of some athletes if you are working so long to compete at that level and that competition is canceled that is not a very happy decision.
“There was a buffer built in, but this hurricane was very drastic and we could not have any competition on Sunday and when we had to start planning on what we would do on Monday morning there was no guarantee it would happen.
“This will all be part of a very big debrief of these Games.”
The Games had already appeared doomed long before Mother Nation got involved.
When original hosts Bromont, Quebec bailed out two years ago because they were unable secure proper financing, Mark Bellissimo and his partners in the Tryon International Equestrian Center came to the FEI’s rescue.
Bellissimo, who runs a multi-million dollar equestrian empire with operations in Wellington, Florida and Denver, is betting on Tryon becoming an equestrian lifestyle destination.
He has radical views on how to boost the sport’s popularity that have not always pleased the establishment, however.
Like the Olympic movement under Bach, Bellissimo is pushing a youth-orientated agenda and would like to see the introduction of extreme disciplines like gladiator polo in the same way the Winter Games has welcomed Big Air and skicross.
De Vos acknowledged the need to stay relevant but the IOC member is also adamant the sport remains true to its core disciplines.
“These sports or disciplines are very new, I don’t think they are already strong enough to part of anything,” explained the Belgian.
“We allowed him (Bellissimo) to have these competitions in the framework of these Games because we believe it could be interesting.
“We are absolutely not against it. But we are focusing on core sports and when it comes to youth we have many, many competing in our events.
“It is not like the FEI is closing its doors but it needs to be relevant, it needs to be sustainable and it needs to be global because we are global organization and that is absolutely not the case with gladiator polo.”
After the WEG wraps up on Sunday the work will continue at Tryon as Bellissimo completes his vision of transforming the facility into the world leading equestrian lifestyle destination complete with condos and hotels.
That legacy could provide FEI with a permanent facility capable of handling a WEG, adding to a discussion about the possibility of two or three venues rotating the world championships.
“This is an option we can look at,” De Vos said. “We need first to make a total evaluation of these Games and see how the concept fits within the development of our sport.
“You always need to reinvent yourself, sport is evolving, we are in a very competitive environment competing with other sports trying to get themselves in the picture but also many other kinds of entertainment.
“Look at the eSports, we are all fighting for the same fans but also for the same athletes.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney