05 Jul 2012

Interview with Metro Newspaper's Elisabeth Braw

- You often say that sports empower women. How, exactly?

• Sport can be a very influential means to teach values, such as tolerance, team spirit, solidarity and fair play as well as to help break social isolation stereotypes, build self-confidence, body awareness and leadership skills.
• Sport also increases the visibility of women in public spaces. Women need to see other women do well, to succeed. It empowers them to not only be a face of change but also a strong force.
• The main problem for women today is gender-based discrimination. Stereotypes of physical abilities and social roles preserve gender discrimination - as well as social and cultural barriers that prevent women from achieving their full potential.
• In order to break these patterns we have to challenge gender discrimination and unequal gender relations and establish an enabling environment for gender equality.
• Billie Jean King: "I've been saying since the beginning of the 21st century that this is the century of women. People are finally understanding that until you bring women out of poverty, until you stop discounting them, and treating them like slaves -- that's the word they use in the book -- humanity can't move forward."

- Equestrian sports is the only sport where men and women compete against each other. Does it make it the world’s most gender-equal sport?

At the London 2012 Olympic Games there will be eight mixed events, six of each will be in equestrian sport (the other two are mixed doubles in tennis and in badminton). It is the only Olympic sport in which men and women compete on equal terms and share the same podium in every discipline and at all levels. Women made their Olympic equestrian debut 60 years ago, at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games, when four lady riders took part in the Dressage competition. The best known of these women has come to be Lis Hartel of Denmark, whose background was rather different from most equestrian athletes of the time.

In 1944, at the age of 23, she was paralysed by polio and while she had gradually regained the use of most of her muscles, she remained paralysed below the knee but was still able to ride beautifully. She was chosen to represent Denmark at the 1952 Olympics and, even though she had to be helped on and off her horse, once she was in the saddle she became a winner, going on to claim individual silver.

When Swedish gold medallist Henri St-Cyr helped her up onto the victory platform for the medal presentation, it was one of the most emotional moments in Olympic history.

- There's a strong connection between horses and the Middle East, with Middle Eastern families investing huge sums in showjumping and racing horses. How do you explain this development?

• The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and fire.
• For as long as I can remember, the horse has always been a fundamental part of Arabian life. In the wake of continuous progression and globalization, the horse symbolizes the region’s rich history, culture and traditions.
• Like other heritage sports across the Middle East and particularly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), equestrian sport preserves the passion and loyalty of the Nation’s ancestors, often highlighting the beginnings and spectacular moments of how the relationship with the horse shifted from survival to recreation.
• I am very passionate about the growth of equestrian sport in the region. There is so much talent and as a sport with such an exceptional platform, it is essential, in my role, to provide Arab athletes not only with a strong grassroots and federation structure but with the opportunity to compete at various levels. By doing so, they will be up against the leading athletes and horses of the world.

- Doping, cheating, rising horse prices: what's the biggest challenge in the equestrian world today?

DOPING It is important to remember that our sport is very specific in that it involves a human and an animal and that it has been a challenge harmonising the fight against doping to make it WADA-compliant.

In the years after the 2008 Olympic Games, where prohibited substances were a big problem in equestrian sport, we knew that we had to have a major overhaul of the system and, with the help of all our stakeholders and renowned international experts, we addressed the science and ethics of drug use in competition horses.

We thoroughly revised our rules and introduced much stronger sanctions for doping violations. And we also made a comprehensive education effort. The FEI Clean Sport campaign has been running for more than two years now and has set the benchmark for other sports federations. We designed a dedicated Clean Sport website which explains the rules and how the system works, as well as clarifying the roles of all those involved in the sport. We have an online prohibited substances database, which is also accessible via iPhone and Android apps and we have developed a global education programme. In 2010 we had no positive results in either our human or our equine athletes at the Youth Olympic Games and the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ and this is the best possible endorsement of the campaign. London 2012 will mark the centenary of equestrian sport in the Olympic Movement.

The best celebration we can have of this landmark anniversary is clean and safe equestrian competitions of the highest level held in a spirit of excellence and fair play. OLYMPIC MOVEMENT, GLOBALISATION, FEI SOLIDARITY Protecting the status of equestrian sport in the Olympic Movement is one of the pledges I made to our member federations that elected me as FEI President. We are committed to expanding our global participation and to ensuring that a growing number of nations are involved in our sport at the highest level. The FEI portfolio has more than tripled in the last 10 years.

To put this into perspective, in 2001 a total of 941 international events were held worldwide; by 2011 this number had climbed to 3,213. There were 30 nations competing in equestrian sport at the 1996 Olympic Games. For London 2012 that number is expected to show a 25% increase when the entries are finalised on 9 July. To help the nations in the greatest need and to make sure our sport is attractive and accessible worldwide, we have created FEI Solidarity, modelled on the hugely successful Olympic Solidarity programme.

The key objectives of the programmes put in place by FEI Solidarity are:

• to assist the National Federations in the preparation of their athletes for participation in FEI competitions;
• to develop the sports knowledge and technical level of athletes and coaches;
• to train sports administrators;
• to create, where needed, simple, functional and economical equestrian sports facilities in cooperation with national or international bodies;
• to support the organisation of competitions at national, regional and continental level under the authority or patronage of the National Federations and to assist the National Federations in the organisation, preparation and participation of their delegations in regional and continental games;
• to encourage joint bilateral or multilateral cooperation programmes among National Federations;
• to urge governments and international organisations to include equestrian sport in official development assistance.

The sport must remain competitive and interesting to on-site and television spectators, to internet and mobile device users, and to the media. The quality of events for juniors and young riders is constantly being improved and encouraging the ongoing entry of young people into the sport is a priority.

Being an IOC member has enabled me to build stronger links between our two organisations. We work closely with the IOC we continue to work tirelessly to ensure that horse sport is in line with all the IOC’s requirements, that it is transparent and cost effective. I can safely say that the FEI has become a trusted partner in the Olympic network. What better proof could there be of the enthusiasm for our sport on the Olympic programme than the huge demand for tickets for this summer’s equestrian events at London 2012. Our events were sold out in a matter of weeks, establishing equestrian as one of the most popular sports in the Games.

-- You're patron of Retraining of Racehorses. If they're not retrained, what kind of life do racehorses face?

• I became the Patron of Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) in 2009 and am very supportive of their efforts.
• RoR aims to achieve a balance between the number of horses leaving racing and number of enthusiastic, and suitable, new homes by the following:

- raises funds from within the Racing Industry to help support the charitable retraining and rehoming of former racehorses - helps provide facilities for the care, retraining and rehoming of former racehorses

- promotes the adaptability of racehorses to other equestrian activities

- runs a well established programme of competition sponsorship, and clinics to educate and improve riders handling former racehorses.

• When retraining, you are asking the horse to forget or ignore what it has been learned, or been conditioned to do, in the past -- not an easy task. Unless there is some mental defect, a horse is not "born" bad; a human helped it get to the point that exhibiting certain behaviors is the only way it knows how to communicate and to act. Retraining a racehorse essentially asking the horse to learn a new "language."
• There is a great deal of concern at the huge rise of the number of horses that are disposed of once their racing careers are over.
• New figures released show that in 2010 the total of all horses and ponies slaughtered for meat in England, Scotland and Wales rose to 7,933, representing a 50% increase on the average number slaughtered in previous years.
• Animal charities tend to accuse the racing industry, which races about 8,000 horses a year, of not doing enough to look after the animals once they have finished racing. However, the industry has been proactive in trying to secure homes for old racehorses.

- Zara Phillips, Queen Elizabeth's granddaughter, will compete in the Olympics, as did her mother - and you're obviously a former competitive equestrian as well. Is there a special bond between royal families and horses?

Zara Phillips has been nominated to the British Eventing team for the London 2012 Olympic Games. She is a remarkable horsewoman and a true champion – she was European champion in 2005 and world champion in Aachen 2006. Zara has previously been selected for the British Olympic team – in 2004 and 2008 – but in the final stages on both occasions her horse was injured and she was forced to withdraw. London 2012 is the third time she has been selected, and having her as a competitor will make a gloriously rich event, with the very best the equestrian world has to offer.

Zara is in every sense a champion and with her incredible track record, no Olympics would be complete without her participation. The performance of the host nation is always important for the overall success of a given sport and even of the entire Olympic Games. Great Britain is one of the world’s strongest equestrian nations and it is a matter of great satisfaction to the FEI that they have qualified teams in all three disciplines and the maximum number of riders – 13. They did so on their own merit by qualifying at some of the FEI’s major championships and didn’t have to rely on the host nation allocation.

We are looking forward to some memorable British performances, and to some very enthusiastic British supporters. What makes equestrian sport truly exceptional however is not the participation of athletes who may be famous by virtue of their status; it is the magic that is created by the perfect harmony of horse and rider. Horses do not understand titles or connections.

Our stars include Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands, world number one in Dressage and who will be making her Olympic debut in London, who used to be an English teacher. The 2008 double Olympic Eventing champion Hinrich Romeike of Germany is a full-time dentist. Equestrian sport is one where men and women, the young and the not so young, the disabled and the able-bodied compete together, and where the horse is the great equaliser.

- Your father, King Hussein of Jordan, famously lasted through plenty of tumult. Right now the Middle East is more tumultuous than usual, and Jordan is bearing the brunt of the burden from the conflict in Syria. Does that worry you?

Note: As I don’t particularly know Your views on this, I have tried to steer clear from the political aspect of the question and focus on Jordan’s humanitarian efforts towards the Syrian refugees. The points below are facts that I have researched online should You require them to help formulate an answer.

• The overwhelming majority of the Jordanians are with the Syrian people. Naturally, as with any country in conflict, neighboring countries are bound to bear the brunt, regardless of their attitude towards the country in conflict (in this case, Syria).
• The Assad regime is besieging hundreds of thousands of Syrians and left them with no access to the world to get food and medicines. This is where Jordan can help, by playing in influential humanitarian role.
• Since March of last year, the number of Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan has increased at an exponential rate. What started as a trickle has turned into a flood; in the past two months the amount of “persons of concern” registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has leapt from 13,933 to about 24,000 – an increase of about 70 percent. But the real number, is closer to 120,000, experts say.
• While Jordan has long been a safe haven for refugees throughout the Arab world – some estimates say that there are already 2 million Palestinian, Iraqi and Libyan refugees in this country of 6.5 million Jordanians – the situation with Syrians is special. The influx from the north poses a dilemma. The Jordanian government has not officially recognized them as refugees, but rather “guests” of the country.
• Unlike neighboring Turkey, which is harboring Syrian refugees in traditional tented camps, Syrians in Jordan are finding safety in cities and villages throughout the Kingdom, stretching limited resources in a country that depends on outside aid.
• Jordan’s ability to put up with the Syrians is limited. The private sector is paying for it now, but soon the bills will add up.
• At a press conference in June, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh noted the government will establish a humanitarian centre in Mafraq Governorate, 80km northeast of Amman, to address the humanitarian repercussions of the Syrian crisis, adding that this centre will be utilised to respond to the humanitarian needs that result from the outflow of Syrians.
• Also attending the press conference was UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres who said, “I appeal to the international community to act immediately and assist the host countries of the Syrian refugees. Jordan is already having difficulties in terms of water resources and is paying a heavy price for its generosity and should be assisted in order to be able to face this challenge. The Syrian refugees are in need of food, healthcare and education. We are sincerely thankful to the Jordanian people who opened their houses and their hearts for the Syrian refugees. However, the humanitarian solution is not the answer to the Syrian crisis; rather, it has to be solved politically so [the refugees] can go back to their country and have a decent life with dignity.”

- The Arab Spring has brought many changes to the Middle East. From your perspective, are they mostly positive or negative?

Note: As I don’t particularly know Your views on this, although I am sure they are mixed, I have left it for You to answer. 

- You’re the founder of the International Jordanian Athletes Cultural Association, which you founded with the aim of promoting sports in the Middle East. Which role would you say sports play today, and which role do you hope it will have in the future?

Sport forms part of human and social development; it can contribute to social cohesion, tolerance and integration and is an effective channel for physical and socio-economic development. As a universal language, sport can be a powerful medium for social and economic change: it can be utilized to bridge cultural gaps, resolve conflict and educate people in ways that very few activities can.

Information provided from the World Economic Forum Report:

Value of sport: Sport is a means of exchange and understanding among people of various backgrounds, nationalities or beliefs, and promotes expression beyond traditional barriers.

Sport demographics and health: Physical activity has a crucial social impact on society’s health and well-being as well as healthcare costs. A connection also exists between being physically active and living a healthy lifestyle.

Sport and education: Sport provides not only health benefits for young participants but also instills qualities such as team work, discipline and a competitive spirit that prove valuable in adulthood. It therefore warrants a prominent place in the educational system.

Sport and politics: Sport and politics often go hand-in-hand. Events such as football matches and the Olympic Games can be vehicles for improving understanding between countries.

Sport and economic development: Sport can contribute to economic development by creating additional sources of income including the manufacture of sporting goods, the development of sport related services and infrastructure or the hosting of sports events.