It is amazement and sadness that fill my heart when I read the Australian Sports Commission/Equestrian Australia 2012 London Olympics Review and reflect how all equestrians, owners, sponsors, supporters and those with businesses who have made their commitments based on a growing and united platform of like minded people, pulling together for mutual benefit, have been short-changed.
So much of the report points to management failings and they can largely be attributed to the lack of historical knowledge of equestrian sport which has clearly hindered the ability to empathise with and relate to individuals and creatively consider innovative ideas that will address shortfalls and in time rectify many of the deficiencies that have been flagged by David Crocker from the Australian Sports Commission.
It is interesting to note that I had a conversation with Mr Crocker back in mid 2011 and I followed it up with a letter expressing my concerns about the lack of due diligence processes undertaken for important management decisions and also the lack of transparency and accountability to members. I feared that the management style of Grant Baldock along with his lack of background was starting to reveal problems that I feared would escalate.
I received a dismissive response from Mr Crocker and told to direct questions to Mr Baldock. I explained that I had already done this and the answers he gave were not true and not acceptable, and I wanted to know where I could go from that point. Subsequently, my worst fears have come true and we face the worst time in the history of Australian equestrian sport.
After my 6 months of making very little personal comment, I post this article prompted by a most interesting meeting that I had last week. I was invited down to the beautiful property of Rob and Mary Hanna at Drysdale to talk through some of the Olympic issues - it was an open exchange and interesting to find that although we came to many conclusions from a different directions, we had a lot in common and it pointed to a feeling that the sport has been mismanaged and absolutely NO ONE feels HAPPY with the outcomes - we all feel let down.
It did not take long in the conversation before we were in total agreement that there were a lot of victims and it was completely unfair to blame people for their actions when they believed that these were sanctioned and in keeping with the rules as they understood them to be.
As I have said before, people read their worst fears into silence and as the members were told nothing, and only had the evidence of changed documents and many strange actions which could be seen as unfair and discretionary, doubts and suspicion set in and the gap between the riders, officials, management and members widened and the main stream and social media stepped in and we all recall of the "wildfire" impact and demise of the reputation of Australia's Olympic bid.
In an environment of goodwill, this would not have happened, but the way the EA CEO, High Performance Manager and Chairman handled the controversy served to widen the gap and for a lot of "watchers" confirmed that dastardly motives were lurking under the surface of what we were being told. Be that right or wrong, this was the public perception and management should realise that it is not only WHAT you do, but also WHAT you are SEEN TO BE DOING that counts.
They were seen to be doing wrong and countered the questions and criticisms in an arrogant "it is none of your business" manner and EA's own Facebook Page was the vehicle for an outburst by Mr Cargill which had hundreds and hundreds of negative responses which confirmed that the membership did not appreciate this dictatorial style.
It did not help that the June 2012 EA Financial Report which was published after the Olympic Games revealed a huge loss and the amount was in keeping with Heath Ryan's predictions made on the 15th March 2012, when he was summoned to the EA office by Paul Cargill (Chairman) and Grant Baldock (CEO). Heath has shared my concerns about the cost and implementation of the ITC Platform and felt that there was much worrying evidence that the project would ultimately cost EA a great deal and if there were any profits to be made, they were earmarked for a 3rd party company and not to be applied to riding related projects.
Of major concern was the knowledge that the then Vice-Chair of EA, Natalie Nichols had been given a software development and hardware supply contract which appeared to be near one million dollars - without a tender - and this fuelled the suspicions that arose when Grant Baldock described the project as a "cash cow" that would be held in the ownership of the 3rd party company - not Inglis and not EA and that he did not know how the profits would be distributed. The concerns escalated when Baldock's personal inter-office memos were downloaded from the Internet and they asked Colin Anson and Lauren Ryan to downgrade the profit projections and adjust the timelines as they were behind the contractual obligations EA had commited to Inglis'.
Baldock had also put forward that one of the masterminds, Colin Anson was expected to sell the Equinect concept to sports outside Equestrian and at many EA meetings he said that Colin would be working with the Australian Sports Commission when he finished his role at EA.
I am puzzled WHY Baldock would have said that the 3rd party company would NOT be EA or Inglis and now the only record of a 3rd party company is one held by then EA Directors. This does not make sense to me and I am sure that a lot of the folks involved have "egg on their face" and are back tracking and modifying the way Bladock described the "cash cow" venture.
I added the above recap of information to show that early suspicions were well founded and members were very confused by EA's Questions and Answers page regarding Equinect as this information did not cover the on-line entry fee system which was the main subject of concern and the things we were asking to have clarified.
From a personal perspective, I found Baldock's responses to my personal questions evasive and largely untrue as he would only talk about how the data base would work. I wanted answers about the on-line entry fee system as this has been the subject of most member's concerns.
Grant Baldock misrepresented the nature of the arrangement/contract with the William Inglis owned Horsezone web site when he said that they were a generous sponsor of the sport - nothing more. However, my assertion that Inglis invested money and were expecting to have it repaid plus a share of the "cash cow' profits when the on-line entry fee system kicked in to handle competition income management in many EA disciplines. Most members were not silly enough to believe that a sponsor would have EA agree to allow all of their member communications to be diverted through a 3rd party website such as Horsezone. However, this was planned (and presented to EA members through press releases by EA and Inglis) when EA did the deal with Inglis. This is illegal and contravenes Privacy Laws and I am sure this is the reason that it has not happened.
No one is happy with the way the London Olympic Games were handled. The High Performance and Selection strategies have failed to deliver even a modest degree of success. EA have come out and criticised the the lack of professionalism and lack of planning by the riders, but I think that it is EA and the High Performance team who have failed the riders. Many of the 2012 team members have not taken part at Olympic level and the ones who have, felt that they were unable to do their best as they were greatly affected and disrupted by the chaos that erupted.
The people I have spoken to site Australia's worst Olympics for decades as a lack of productive management and clear guidelines.
I mentioned my amazement about the revelations contained in the recent official findings, as for many years now I have aimed to make my reports very positive and supportive of Australian equestrian sport. I have spent days out in all weather conditions to bring comprehensive news and pictures of many riders, their helpers, sponsors, traders and other people (and their dogs)
involved in the success of the event. I have had meetings where I have presented this all inclusive style is a MUST if the sport is to grow the fan base which will attract funding from 3rd parties who love to be part of the action and support their favourite combination/s.
It is interesting that in 2004 I had some business dealings with Brian Silvia from Val D'Argent Stud in NSW and we both bemoaned the lack of vision and commitment by certain sectors of EA. Brian then operated his stud in the Hunter Valley and stood 4 imported stallions and ran a herd of carefully selected brood mares. His stallion Gullet was campaigned by Matthew Dowsley and was sold to the UK for $1,300,000 which I believe still stands as an Australian record.
Brian told me of his wish to help the sport and Australian riders to improve by providing 6 good horses to 6 talented riders that would otherwise be short an international quality horse. The 6 horses would go into a program to start on the long road to becoming an international stars and hopefullu on to represent Australia - it was certainly visionary and long term. The "showstopper" was that Brian would lease the horses to EA and someone in the organisation would have to be responsible to see that the commitment of the riders was on track and the horses were not just sitting in a paddock. I congratulated him on his visionary and generous thinking and asked how things were going. I was shocked to learn that EA did not take him up on the offer because they did not want to be responsible ... and felt that they lacked the resources to monitor the progress of horses and riders.
As a media person, I was totally lost for words - it would have made excellent and on-going editorial content, It would have prompted more breeders to do the same and given Australia a real boost to their equine talent - a perfect example of a win/win outcome. Instead, Brian was upset that his generosity was not taken up and we still hear of good riders not having the personal funding to buy a good horse ... or that Australia's top prospects leave our shores because of the huge money available for well performed horses in overseas markets.
With this information on board, I spoke with CEO (EV) Carl Wood, his successor and then to Jackie Woodhead about this opportunity to bring owners and supporters into the sport in a way similar to the model put forward by Brian. I felt that I was well placed to provide the good news updates and communications through my role at Cyberhorse. I believed that this idea was capable of generating income and extend to many other facets of the equestrian industry. I was gobsmacked by the lack of vision and lazy approach - clearly it was all too hard - even with my willingness to help.
I have always been prepared to put in and work for the sport, and yes, when the Horsezone monopoisation of Australian equestrian media was first announced, I shared a disappointment with many long term suppliers of media space, positive publicity and photos. We all work hard for slim pickings and it was clear that our generosity was not recognised by someone with five minutes in the sport and a clear lack of knowledge of how this aspect of the media co-operative had been balanced.
I have had a number of conversations with other media representatives and they all report a very depressed environment and not a lot of "blue sky" ahead. The Internet has brought into the mix a medium where FREE is the name of the game and yet the cost of producing professional and comprehensive coverage, has risen. The Internet has no magazine cover charge to repay the cost of production and we now find ourselves in a downward spiral that will see our sport suffer due to reduced reporting.
With decreasing news coverage, fans will drop off and people will look to overseas stories or worse, interests outside equestrian to provide their entertainment. This will impact the positive flow on effect to Australian breeders and other equestrian related businesses.
For me, Grant Baldock should have made one of hirst first tasks an impact study or at least have spoken to the media representatives who felt, quite rightly, that they had a stake in Australia's rise to prominence and the dissemenation of news.
On April the 30th EA will conduct a National Board meeting to decide the future of Equinect and I am sure other business plans depending on the 7 shareholder's opinions. With rumours that E NSW want to "go it alone" in terms of member management, it seems likely that the announcement of 1 month ago will be overturned and that Equinect will be dropped. I doubt that the other 6 states will be confident to stay with Equinect without the 50% of the members which are in NSW.
I am sure that this will present huge problems and surely Grant Baldock will be able to step away from any responsibility for this disaster, as at the end of the day, he allowed the Board to make the final decisions (that they could hardly refuse, based on his good salesmanship!)
We are right back to where we were 4 years ago when Franz Venhaus stepped down as EA's CEO. He sighted the most pressing requirement as the development of a member management system that was capable of leading the sport into an Internet age and secure a workable communications platform.
We have made absolutely NO progress and are a million dollars poorer. Back then, Members were happy to accept that management were on the ball and working for our collective interests. We have been shown that this is NOT the case and we must be very afraid.
EA has a communications crisis. My own experience of being asked to write my concerns about the management of dressage judges highlights a great deal of negative feedback that has come to my attention. On the 15th April 2012 I wrote saying that resigning as an A Level judge of 22 years standing was my only way to make a protest and for me, was like "throwing out the baby with the bathwater". Ben Harris seemed genuinely interested and asked me to document the many shortfalls in the system that I drew to his attention. I spend a day and a half researching and coherently documenting the things we discussed. To date, I have had no response except that my e-mail was received. Ironically the drop off of judge numbers is viewed as a crisis and yet many of the 50% of people who were on the list 10 years ago, tell me of similar experiences and a feeling that they are not valued.
In my recent conversation with Rob Hanna, he reminded me that he (and/or his company) have been sponsors, helpers, and the Chef d'Equipe in dressage and eventing for 15 years and done many things to help Australians and their sport. I know from personal experience that many of his projects were of a financial nature and very generous. Rob has stepped down from his equestrian roles and yet NO letter of acknowledgement or thanks has been received. He is hurt and understands how I feel after giving up weekends for decades acting as a judge and judge educator.
So, without delay, EA needs to put in place a Communications and Strategy Co-ordinator so that people have a contact and voice to ensure that letters and phone calls are answered and actioned. They cannot afford to lose anymore goodwill as this is a major reason for the drop of in membership renewals.
For most members, the EA High Performance Panel report and the findings of the Australian Sports Commission have confirmed the poor governance that we have been bleating about along with our call for transparency, accountability and unity. This market research is free and could guide a change to better times ahead.