He’s a horseman, a sports fan, a legal expert and successful businessman, and as 2021 dawns Israel’s Ken Lalo is filled with anticipation. Because, for the very first time, his country will be represented by a Jumping team at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer, and his role in making that happen has been a major one.
“It was a dream of mine for many years”, says the man who has served as President of his National Federation for six terms. “It started partially as my own project because the Board didn’t support me at the time. They felt we should concentrate on establishing more events in Israel and on developing a bigger pool of riders. But I was of the belief that we had to do both”, he points out.
I’m interviewing him in late December 2020, after his appointment as Chair of the FEI Atypical Findings Panel which was created prior to implementation of the new FEI Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations on 1 January 2021.
Ken Lalo’s involvement with the FEI and its legal work dates back to the 1990s. He was Deputy Chair of the FEI Judicial Committee from 1996 to 1999, Chair from 1999, and when that morphed into the FEI Tribunal he continued in the Chair until 2011 when he was appointed as an Arbitrator at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), a role he continues to fill.
The two words that arise most often in conversation with him are “reasonable” and “fair”, and they possibly explain the status of the reputation he has established. Ken has been at the sharp end of many major legal wrangles down the years, so one might expect to be confronted by a tough, opinionated and uncompromising individual. In stark contrast however he is soft-spoken, thoughtful and sympathetic. It is patently obvious that he has the best interests of both athletes and sport at heart.
An Atypical Findings Policy means that it will be possible for the FEI to determine that the presence of some substances will no longer lead to automatic penalties. “Certain substances which can appear in a human athlete as a result of contamination shouldn’t automatically lead in all instances to a legal case, and the FEI expanded this to medications or substances used in horses which I think makes a lot of sense”, he explains.
Contaminated horse feed
He refers to an incident some years ago when the FEI Tribunal was faced with five positive cases from a single event which were eventually all traced to contaminated horse feed. “It was a mistake on the part of a well-known manufacturer, but we still had to find against the riders and I’m not sure that this was a fair result”, he says.
“Sometimes you create a system and then, as a reaction to outside events, you go too much in one direction or another. When I first joined the Tribunal under Lord Lowry we didn’t treat medication or prohibited substance cases with horses the same as for humans….but then we matched the rules with strict liability and harsher sanctions. In a strict liability system a person is found liable regardless of whether they meant it or not. With laboratories now able to find minuscule amounts of substances it sometimes can go to the extreme and be too harsh”, he says.
In his role with WADA, the decongestant and bronchodilator Clenbuterol has been a major cause for concern. It is widely used by asthma sufferers but, as Ken points out “in some countries like Mexico and China you find it in meat…and it is unfair to penalise an athlete if they test positive for something they couldn’t control under any reasonable circumstances even after applying the strictest measures”.
He’s had a lifelong passion for horses even though, as he says, “Israel is a country with no horse tradition to speak of. We had Arabian horses and pleasure riding but not much more. During the British mandate from 1920 to 1948 there were some Jumping events for British solders but at a very low level.
“But for some reason I loved horses from an early age and I used to go to the stables every day instead of school, so when I was 15 my father suggested I go and ride in England and leave High School even though he was a graduate of Harvard”. It was a wise decision, because Ken would eventually take a similar route without being denied his opportunity to enjoy equestrian sport. And that has led him to where he is today.
From the age of 15 to 18 he trained with British Olympic Dressage coach, Robert Hall, at the famous Fulmer School of Equitation in England and became a British Horse Society Instructor. And after his mandatory national army service he joined Robert at his American base in Massachusetts and rode on the US East Coast Dressage circuit, competing up to international level. By the time he was 20 he had completed his A levels and had law school in his sights, eventually emerging with a Masters and MBA.
But he never stopped riding, jumping up to 1.35m level in Israel. He met his wife, Allison, when he gave her a riding lesson, and his children – two boys and a girl – all rode. “The boys were Israeli champions many times in showjumping”, he says proudly. “Dean now lives and works as an architect in New York, Leiel is in his last year of medical studies in Hungary and Romy studies communications at an Israeli University – and we still have horses and I still ride on occasion”.
In his “proper job” he has worked for a very large Israeli high-tech conglomerate and, more recently, manages a company in the automotive business in Europe. “We operate in 10 countries with sales that came from zero to half a billion Euros. I hope to grow it to one billion in a year or two”, he says casually. Somehow he has managed to fit the commitment to the FEI and CAS into all that.
He first became involved with the FEI in 1992. “Israeli equestrian at the time was isolated because we are in the Middle East and most of our other sports were connected with Europe. So I had to persuade the FEI to allow us to become part of Europe” he points out. Of course he succeeded and in 1996 he became a member of the Judicial Committee, Deputy Chairman and eventually Chairman, and then headed the Tribunal when it was formed. “As the FEI became more professional with a legal team in-house then there was separation which I was very much in favour of – it made sense to become a Tribunal with proper processes to decide cases and to allow the FEI legal staff to draft the regulations and prosecute legal cases”, he says.
In his role with CAS he doesn’t deal with equestrian sport “because I’m considered to be too close to the equestrian world”. Instead he is mainly involved with cases in athletics, hockey and football, and mostly around doping-related issues.
“A year ago CAS created an Anti-Doping Division specifically for doping cases, and that was always my strength and preference so I’m part of that”, he points out. In that capacity he was a member of the CAS Anti-Doping Commission at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
He takes his work very seriously. “It’s very challenging but in the end I try to apply the rules correctly to the facts and ignore outside noise so to speak, anything not relevant, and take a decision. You have to also understand that a decision must be fair to the entire sport system. Not that you decide just one case, there are other athletes that competed at that event, or other events, and what you decide can affect them too.
“So in a sense you defend the entire reason that people compete, and that fans go to see sport. They expect the event to be operated under a proper legal system and that the rules are observed, otherwise they will know there’s monkey business going on in their sport and eventually they won’t be interested in it anymore, so the sport loses all its value”.
Legal cases can be notoriously difficult to untangle, but Ken says he’s always in favour of trying to simplify things, and that speed is of the essence.
“It is of key importance to try to stay in an acceptable timeline. For a legal system to be proper you have to make quick decisions. That’s not always the case I know, which is unfortunate, but it should be the idea. When I was at the Tribunal one of the key ideas I introduced was a specific set of recommended timelines for cases, and I also announced at every General Assembly how many cases were decided within those timelines and how many were outside. So that was a way to judge myself as well. I think this is really important”.
His role as President of the Israeli Equestrian Federation hasn’t been all plain sailing. Initially he met with significant opposition, “because many of the people who control the sport here are horse dealing and trading and sometimes they have a very narrow perception, even fearing that high-level athletes may take away some of their customers”. So that leads to friction.
“I’ve only one interest – to see the Israeli team being successful internationally. I think every sports organisation should try to get to the top, and for me that’s the Olympic Games!”.
‘At the same time you don’t forget that you need a broad base of the sport in the country to develop future generations of riders, and I’m doing that too. We have quite a strong number of riders at the moment and many of them are young and talented. In Jumping we have four in the top 200 of U25, and even Daniel Bluman is still young!” he adds.
And his top team are also supported by two legends, Hans Hoorn and Olympic, World and European champion Jeroen Dubbeldam who combine the jobs of Chef d’Equipe and trainer. “We looked for people with experience who would hopefully attract a big group of our international riders. I wanted to maximise the support of the riders and their personal trainers and to avoid conflict when it comes to team selection. I’ve learned from my professional career that to keep a good team you need stability, stamina and patience, and I try to apply those principles. So my real role is to keep the Federation stable and as silent as possible on the issue of team selection so we can have a better longterm view of what we are setting out to achieve”.
“Our mission is three Olympics until 2028 – Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles. I know you need mileage to be successful and you can’t get that in a short period of time, but this is something we are trying to build.
“Tokyo will be our first Olympics and I hope we can also qualify for Paris and it becomes more of a tradition for us to be at the Games. On paper we are not amongst the top 10 teams, but on a good day I hope we can somehow have a successful day or a successful individual rider and then we take it as it goes. There is no pressure. I advise the sponsors and the riders that it’s important to build tradition and culture and mutual support as much as possible. It’s not easy when you have individual athletes, and that’s why I’d also like see Hans and Jeroen staying with us for the longterm”.
It hasn’t been easy for Ken Lalo to put a financial support system in place either, but that situation is improving. Before Olympic qualification was achieved in July 2019 the Israeli Equestrian Federation wouldn’t release funding, and everyone involved had to pay their own way. Now however that has changed, and at last there is a sense of moving forward together with big goals ahead, although his position as President is voluntary so he continues to self-finance – “and I think that’s the healthiest system”, he says.
In his role as Federation President, he will travel to Tokyo with the team, and his wife Allison will be there too. She likes joining him at events but, unlike her husband, doesn’t ride anymore.
“But we still have a big interest across the whole family. It’s a must because if you have to get up at five in the morning to take the trailer to a horse show and you only get back at night or the next day, then unless the whole family is involved I don’t know how you can continue doing it for years. But that’s my biggest fun, it always keeps the right balance”.
The pandemic has taken its toll in Israel like everywhere else but with around 10% of the population already vaccinated it is hoped the country will be Covid-free by April and, thanks to determined negotiations with government, horse events continued to be staged. “We actually had greater participation at shows in 2020 than in 2019!”.
His biggest disappointment of the year was the cancellation of the London International Horse Show last month. “Christmas without Olympia was very sad. We go there every year, and night after night we sit through the entire performance, including the dog agility, and love every minute of it – it’s an amazing show!”
But he’s really looking forward to what 2021 has to offer. “I’m generally optimistic and I love everything to do with horse sport and sport generally”, says this man of integrity who has long been a custodian of fair play in the field of sporting ambition…..
Source and photo FEI