'All I ever wanted was fairness' - Splaine defends Rio selection and insists Allen’s response was ‘damaging’
The root of the issue dates back three years, and if this seems an odd time to uncover old wounds it's because, for some, the effects still linger.
It was June 2016, just over a month out from the Rio Olympics, and Robert Splaine, show jumping team manager for Horse Sport Ireland, picked up the phone to call Bertram Allen, one of Irish show jumping's brightest stars. He told Allen that Ireland's sole individual place in Rio would go to Greg Broderick and his horse MHS Going Global, which had outperformed Allen and his horse Molly Malone at the most recent Nations Cup event in St Gallen, Switzerland.
Allen did not take the news well, but he refrained from venting publicly about the decision until August 2018 when, in an interview with the Irish Independent, he stated it "wasn't any big surprise" that he was omitted because he "knew who was making the decision".
In the same interview, Allen said the reason Ireland had not qualified a show jumping team for Rio was that "everything wasn't done properly" on the build-up. Splaine took issue with what he felt was a personal attack and over the past 13 months he has made contact with Allen numerous times to seek a retraction and public apology. Neither has been forthcoming.
As such, Splaine feels he has no option but to go public with a rebuttal.
"I didn't start this, and I always wanted to walk away and enjoy the memories but I haven't been allowed to," says Splaine. "I fully understand that any and all of my decisions could be and were entitled to be questioned and scrutinised, publicly or otherwise, but what I cannot accept is misleading accusations, insinuations and mistruths relating to me being put into the public domain."
Splaine served as Chef d'Équipe from 2006 to 2016 and during that time he was sole selector for Irish show jumping teams for Nations Cup events, European Championships, World Games, the Olympics and all individual events as appropriate. He served two years before this term in a part-time role.
"I don't think I would have survived for 12 years without doing something right," he says.
On the build-up to the 2016 Olympics, Splaine disagreed with Allen about his competition schedule. "He was fortunate to have one of the best horses in the world and I advised him not to overuse her in the run-up to the Olympic qualification," says Splaine. "However, he claimed to know best but his results in a crucial qualification situation fell short of what was possible."
Of the four Irish contenders for that sole Olympic berth, Allen had the worst score at the final trial event in St Gallen, recording 14 faults over four rounds with Molly Malone. Greg Broderick and MHS Going Global had a 0 score for the same four rounds.
Allen secured Ireland the individual Olympic place through previous performances, although that was no guarantee of selection given such places are awarded to the country, not the individual. Splaine says that Allen was actually the third choice at the time. "His form at that particular time was poor, well below at least two others."
When Splaine's contract expired in 2016, he departed his position on good terms with Horse Sport Ireland. "I served out my contract in full and retired," he says.
In the years since he has continued working at his farm in Cork, where he trains show jumping horses that he buys and sells internationally. He also continues to coach show jumpers up to international level, but he feels the comments made by Allen have had a sustained negative impact.
"He painted me as an unfair person," he says. "The whole tone was that I had an ulterior motive for not nominating Bertram Allen. I had to make many tough decisions during my time as Chef d'Équipe and they were all based on being fair to everybody, nominating the partnerships with the best form.
"The article was damaging to my future prospects of working in the industry. I felt I couldn't let it go unchallenged.
"Despite there being a robust appeal mechanism in place, Bertram did not appeal the decision."
Just days after the article was published in August last year, Splaine spoke with officials from Horse Sport Ireland at the Dublin Horse Show and made his displeasure known. He says he was advised that he could have a legal case, but Splaine is hesitant to go to such lengths. "I have no intention of suing anybody. All I ever wanted in relation to this issue was fairness and for history not to be rewritten at my expense, nor indeed at the expense of the owners, who made their horses available, and the other team members, who worked so hard to achieve those victories.
"Seeing such an article in the newspapers is not good for the sport but when it comes to the point where it affects not just me but my family - who would have known I was working hard - then yes, it was hurtful."
The claim by Allen that things were not done "properly" on the build-up to Rio is one Splaine disputes in the strongest terms.
When contacted on Friday, Allen said that he had already apologised privately to Splaine and that he had no further comment to make on the issue. However, Splaine says that Allen told him that he had been misquoted in the article, but did not apologise for what he was reported to have said in the interview.
In relation to the decision to omit Allen from the 2016 Olympic team, Horse Sport Ireland said through a spokesperson that it had no issue with the process followed.
"The primary objective of the criteria was to nominate the horse and athlete combination who the Chef d'Équipe considered technically capable to achieve the best possible result for Ireland. The published selection criteria was adhered to, the nominated athlete was accepted by the Olympic Council of Ireland and duly competed at the Games."
Horse Sport Ireland said Splaine, "as an accomplished athlete and coach, guided the Irish jumping team to achieve a podium finish at the Super League finals in Barcelona in 2013 and an individual bronze medal at the London Olympics. His tenure was defined with podium finishes at the highest levels which continually built towards Team Ireland Equestrian success at home and abroad".
Splaine, today, reflects positively on his time at the helm: "I'm proud of my record, the highlights of which were two Aga Khan Trophy victories in Dublin and an Olympic medal in London."