In the soaring language of the Olympic Charter, the very first "Fundamental Principles of Olympism" include "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." But high words cast a long shadow over low deeds.
On Saturday, Tiffany Foster, one of Canada’s Jumping team members, was disqualified from the Olympics by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), after its Veterinary Commission discovered a superficial scratch above one of her horse’s hooves.
The FEI justified its decision by citing regulations designed to protect horses from abusive competition practices, in which unscrupulous riders scald or inflame their horses’ legs, to force the horses to leap higher in a desperate attempt to avoid striking hypersensitized skin against the fences.
The regulations are absolutely legitimate. The FEI’s attempt to apply them to Foster’s situation was absurd.
The FEI has conceded that there is no suggestion that Foster acted improperly, neither through malice nor through negligence, neither through omission nor through commission. The FEI Veterinary Commission did not even bother to take the horse out of its stall to examine it further or to test its movement for any signs of discomfort. There is no evidence that the horse itself was even aware of the scratch, other than when it was poked repeatedly.
The FEI acknowledged that Foster had no ill intentions. It acknowledged that she committed no wrongful act. It acknowledged that she failed in none of her responsibilities. It presented no evidence that her horse was in any distress.
It nevertheless punished her by casting her out from the Olympics.
By wrapping indefensible decisions in the false flag of horse welfare, the FEI has done more than wrong individual athletes. It has brought its commitment to horse welfare into disrepute, and demonstrated a willingness to make its most important rules the enemies of the most basic standards of justice.
How is such a state of affairs possible? The FEI regulations state baldly, "there is no appeal against the decision of the Ground Jury to disqualify a horse for abnormal sensitivity." There is explicitly no remedy for those who have been treated unjustly; there are no consequences for those who wield power capriciously. And power without accountability inevitably invites abuse.
Many Canadians will shake their heads in sympathy for Foster, then shrug their shoulders in the belief that there is nothing to be done, that the forces arrayed against her and other athletes are simply too powerful, that the interests embodied in international sport organizations are too entrenched. But this is only true if we allow it to be so.
As Canadians, we have a choice, and we have a responsibility to choose to not go gentle into that good night.
In a globalized world, we can project our values into the international system, or we can allow ourselves to become prisoners of the values of others. We can speak up for the ideals good sportsmanship, or we can stifle the voice of conscience when those ideals are trampled. We can stand with our athletes, or we can collude with those who treat their dreams as expendable commodities.
After Foster was sent home from the Olympics, Equine Canada, the Canadian Equestrian Team’s governing federation, chose to issue a statement thanking the FEI for its conduct in this affair. Its choice was a public obscenity, and an affront to every athlete who has ever carried the maple leaf into competition. In response, Eric Lamaze, perhaps the greatest equestrian athlete Canada has ever produced, chose to announce that he will never again compete under Equine Canada’s authority, unless the federation reverses its position.
This is more than a fight over the treatment of a single athlete. This is more than a struggle for the future of equestrian sport. This is a battle for the values, the honour, and the very soul of our country’s national sporting system.
Eric has chosen to risk everything to stand with the angels. I believe in my heart that Canadians will not leave him to stand alone.
Akaash Maharaj is a triple gold medallist for Canada at the International Championships of Equestrian Skill-at-Arms, and a former CEO of Equine Canada. His personal web site is www.Maharaj.org.