Mariette Withages: "The FEI is Not a Democracy"

Fri, 04/03/2009 - 00:00
An Interview With...

Those who thought that Mariette Withages would wallow in self pity after her resignation as chair of the FEI Dressage Committee are wrong. "You have to be a tough cookie," she said from experience.

As if carrying teflon armour, criticism does not stick on her, otherwise she wouldn't have lasted for seven years as big boss of dressage. After the Olympic judging fiasco, Withages was sacrificed and resigned as chair. "The judges are always the weakest link in a judging sport," she admits. Belgian journalist Kris van Loo sat down with Mariette Withages late December 2008 to conduct the following interview.

Kris van Loo: Are you looking for a new job now?
 I just spent my afternoon filling up my schedule for 2009. Nothing has fundamentally changed in my life and 2009 will be a busy year.

Van Loo: Really?
The only thing that will change in the future is that I won't spend so much time behind the computer. The staff of the FEI is still contacting me. You shouldn't forget that there isn't a dressage committee at the moment. There is a task force with a clear mission statement, but that's still different from a committee. I just got back from Malaysia where I participated in a dressage forum and will be leaving for Portugal soon.

Van Loo: Are you still the dressage boss behind the scene?
No, not at all, but if the FEI staff calls me, I will continue to help them; no longer as a boss, but just as Mariette Withages. A bunch of decisions still needs to be made and arrangements implemented and I want to finalize those. I'll wrap up the current affairs.

Van Loo: How noble? Don't you want to flip the finger?
 No, that's not the way I am made of. The FEI staff doesn't have to be punished for the decisions the executive board took! And I don't want to kick shins. I dedicated a large part of my life to the dressage sport, so it makes sense that I don't want to see it succumb. The FEI is no longer following me, that's their choice. The future will tell who was right. I have been an international judge for thirty years and chair of the dressage committee for seven years. I claim that I know how the dressage world is put together. The FEI disagrees with me and wants to walk a different road.

Van Loo: What were the reactions after your resignation?
 Only positive ones, though I realize that the detractors wouldn't contact me. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw all the flowers, cards and mails I received. Many people think that it didn't happen the right way. I agree totally, there is no democracy within the FEI; they don't even know the word there.

Van Loo: Did you have a weak moment at the General Assembly in Argentina? It's not your style to give up.
 It was the only way to get out of this cul-de-sac. I've defended myself with tooth and claw and had a waterproof file, the majority was on my side... Oh well, you know, the previous FEI president, Dona Pillar, would have quit in a similar situation, in which a majority would vote against her. But not all presidents are the same. In that period I was permanently in touch with my lawyers for one whole week and we came to the conclusion that a legal battle would take too long. What's my benefit to get the verdict that I'm right next year? And by the way, our secretary-general Ingmar Devos [of the Belgian Equestrian Federation] and chair Jacky Buchmann have supported me in a very dignified way. The FEI didn't play the game fairly. I had a very strong case and could repudiate any allegation, but it wasn't meant to be. I had already received the verdict before the "trial" had started. 

Van Loo: And then you resigned yourself. Did you get a good resignation bonus?
 I wish it were true!

Van Loo: You were chair of the committee for almost two full terms. You can apply again next year?
 I wouldn't be that stupid! There is nothing more to achieve there.

Van Loo: Was this a personal vendetta
 Maybe it was, but I can't prove it, so I'm not going to make any statements about it. The executive board apparently has a different view on the evolution of dressage from the dressage committee. And as a result they pushed their will through. With success, because we all had to step down. The FEI dressage committee has always strictly lived by and applied the rules. And this correct attitude has killed us. We had a strong dressage committee, maybe it was too strong?

Van Loo: Isn't it very simple: Mariette Withages and Princess Haya don't work together?
No, not directly. It's more subtle. Princess Haya thought she couldn't work with the dressage committee. We weren't flexible enough. She's still young, don't forget that. I think that in four years or so, we'll realize what happened. Her statement that dressage will be questioned as a discipline for the next Olympic Games was a blunder. Two days later, the IOC blew the whistle. I don't feel bad in the current situation because we didn't do anything wrong, neither I, nor the members of the committee.

Van Loo: Didn't you fuse the bomb yourself with the composition of the Olympic judging panel?
 That was already the second fuse! The first fuse was lit in another very stupid way. Some time ago, a long time ago, the dressage committee was exclusively made up by judges. This composition was changed through time, but still they think there are too many judges in it. Then the criticism came that we were self-serving and appointing ourselves, including for the Olympic Games.

Van Loo: The FEI President wanted another chair of the judges for Hong Kong, on request of the Dutch Equestrian Federation?
Again, we applied the rules correctly at all times. The Olympic judges were appointed well ahead of time, I believe two years beforehand. Don't ask me why, but that's what it is. I was supposed to be the president of the judges, but three months after the composition of the panel a rule was made that the chair of the dressage committee can not be the chair of the judging panel because of conflict of interest. That rule counts for all disciplinary committees. As a result we were forced to appoint a new president. The choice was between the Dutch Ghislaine Fouarge and the German Gotthilf Riexinger, because of their experience. After voting, Riexinger got one vote more and for us the decision was made. And the Dutch federation reacted to that.

Van Loo: Were you sensing trouble then?
We only applied the rules. At the FEI Meeting in Interlaken in April Princess Haya suggested to me to select a new president for the Olympic jury, but it's not that we can do anything about it, because she simply wants it. I argued about it extensively and I stuck to my viewpoint. I had not a single argument to appoint a new jury president. Then Princess Haya got very mad. Consequently, the Bureau voted about it and agreed with the dressage committee. The composition of the panel stayed the same.

Van Loo: What then went wrong in Hong Kong ?
 Absolutely nothing. OK, you could say that the German judge did not give enough points to Imke Schellekens-Bartels. It remains disputable, though I still think his judging was correct from his point of view on the arena. And even if you were to scratch his result, it would not affect the end result. But that was the final straw and the dressage committee got full blame. And you know, I still think that a score is a team result.

Van Loo: Did you hold secret meetings at the Games, like the Belgian politicians do?
 There was nothing secret about it. The judges were put under pressure and some of them even had turned off their cell phones, but then I couldn't reach them[Withages was technical delegate in Hong Kong]. It was not doable. After the Grand Prix Special I gathered the chef d'equipes of the four top ranking countries with the judges. The situation was unmanageable. I tried to pull the fuse out of the bomb. It wanted an open conversation and wanted to listen to their complaints. But the so-called secret meeting leaked out and everything blew up afterwards. And the pressure on the judges just came from one country!

Van Loo: It's always easy to talk afterwards but was the appointment of the German president of the jury not oil on fire for the Dutch
A German was president at the European Championships without any problem. I have learnt that some people have a personal problem with Riexinger, though it would be very narrow-minded of them. I don't know everything. I still don't have answers to a few questions.

Van Loo: The judges are always the ones to blame?
 And without judges there is no sport. A good result for Holland means a bad result for Germany and vice versa. Both countries still are far ahead of the other countries and one of the two countries will be disappointed by definition.

Van Loo: Have you failed as dressage boss?
I don't think so. We've changed a lot and made much progress. Dressage has become much more transparent and under my supervision globality has become a fact. Despite this recent commotion we've worked intensively at the education of the judges world wide.

Van Loo: And small thanks you had for it?
 Pff, I don't want to see it that way.

Van Loo: Doesn't it bother you?
 I had a really bad week in Buenos Aires, but you always learn from the positive and the negative.

Van Loo: What did you learn this time?
 Despite everything, I'm glad to conclude that many people stand behind me, more than I ever dared to imagine. I know exactly what I can expect of some people. It creates clarity. And in some people, I'm very disappointed. I don't hold grudges, it's too cheap. I might no longer be chair of the FEI Dressage Committee but I'll continue judging.

Van Loo: But meanwhile it's Sjef Janssen vs Mariette Withages: 1 - 0. The Dutch team coach will be laughing?
 Probably. I think it was an overreaction of him. In the meantime, we've seen each other but still haven't spoken.

Text by Kris van Loo for Haverklap

Related Links
Mariette Withages Resigns as Chair of FEI Dressage Committee
FEI President Princess Haya Asks for Resignation FEI Dressage Committee
Mariette Withages, Chair of FEI Dressage Committee, Replies
War of the Worlds: National Equestrian Federation Take Standpoint on Haya's Request for Resignation of FEI Dressage Committee