Dressage is where it’s at

By Carole Mortimer on |

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Dujardin Charlotte, GBR, Valegro Olympic Games Rio 2016 Photo © Hippo Foto - Dirk Caremans 15/08/16
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Phew. What a ride and that was just us, the armchair spectators at home. Was there ever a more perfect test than the one Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro pulled out of the bag when it mattered most and threw down mission impossible to those following —– not that it wasn’t a nerve-wracking watch just in case.

How amazing that little GBR has a double Olympic champion — in dressage of all things. And even more amazing that most of Tuesday’s national papers have the British dressage queen adorning their front pages. Extraordinary.

After the disappointment in eventing, how strange it was to hear myself saying: “At least we have the dressage to look forward to and cheer us up”. Whoever imagined that would be a sentence? And cheer us up it most certainly did, with all four riders presenting great grand prix tests to win team silver — how thrilling for Spencer Wilton and Fiona Bigwood and how well they rode at their first Olympic Games.

It is not that long ago that we were happy with one rider scoring 70% and getting through to the special and we all remember the excitement when Carl Hester made the Olympic freestyle in 2004 with Escapado. This year, was it not for the fact that only three from any one nation could do the freestyle, all four riders would have been good enough for the final.

Goodness, how things have moved on and, in the main, all thanks to the amazing, inspirational Carl Hester, who has totally transformed the image of British dressage from a genteel sport for ‘older ladies’ to an exciting one that so many young aspire to compete in. I so hope that he will be recognised for everything he has done to lift the profile of the sport, through his own talent as well as training and enthusing others, not only at home but around the world — it is some legacy.

Empty seats

It was such a pity then that there were only what seemed a relative handful of spectators to witness the event — even for the freestyle.

The seemingly huge Deodoro stadium certainly looked over-catered and the dressage arena a lonely place. It was in direct contrast to the Greenwich arena that hosted the London Olympic equestrian sports and was the first 2012 venue to sell out. Yet both stadiums were the same size — Greenwich a packed 23,000 seats and Deodoro an empty 20,000 seats.

With equestrian sports supposedly on the line for future Olympic inclusion, this doesn’t look good. Yet eventing and dressage are not alone. Reports have it that, on most days, only a third of the 56,000 seats in the athletics stadium were filled, while, to my eyes, the Deodoro hockey venue, was devoid of spectators and even the velodrome, gymnasium or swimming pool never looked full.

Those opposed to the de

cision to bring the Games to Rio, a city with much poverty in a large country beset with political problems, will feel justified in criticising the huge cost of the Games. By the looks of it, there will be a deficit all round (and not just in equestrian sport) which begs much, much bigger questions than whether dressage and eventing should be included or not.

But dressage and eventing are also not big in South America so it will be interesting to see if spectators arrive for the more popular sport of showjumping.

Looking ahead to the next Games in Tokyo I anticipate a similar scenario; Japan is most certainly not a country of equestrian followers and, like Rio, it will be an expensive one for even the most ardent of followers to get to.

To be honest, however, do we need to travel so far now we have such good coverage? BBC Sport has been amazing in live-streaming all sports. That is not to say that perhaps the dressage commentary couldn’t be improved — although Peter Storr added insightful and interesting commentary to the grand prix special. Perhaps we need more Peter Storrs in the commentary box.

Format confusion

I have to admit that dressage does seem difficult to follow — at least with cycling, a sport I don’t understand, with its strange names of Omnium, Madison and Keirin, you can see who crosses the line first. And in fencing, another strange sport I enjoy watching every four years only, you can see who got hit. However, if you are not au-fait with the test and the nuances of dressage movements, the result can be puzzling.

Even seasoned sports journalists have fallen foul — one esteemed writer commented on the rider’s choice of music for the special and, this morning, referred to piaffe as the ‘little spins on the spot’, ‘sideways trot’ and ‘bouncing around in stationary position’ — perhaps he had his tongue in his cheek?

Nor does it help when a British commentator continually referred to the six-figure cost of a particular horse each time it entered the arena. The point being made I know not, as there was no context. I understand the cost of a bike can also reach six figures but I haven’t heard one reference to that.

And why does the dressage format keep changing? Three in a team to count in London, four in a team with a discount score in Rio and back to three for Tokyo. And, this time, the grand prix and special counted for the team result based on average scores — I still don’t know whether that was an average of both or just the special. It got too difficult to work out.

Adding the scores together as was previously used was much easier and spectator friendly — you didn’t need a calculator to keep up. Yes, there is room for improvement and consistency if we want more people to watch dressage but, looking at the media coverage this year’s competition has generated, and of course added to the British medal table, I imagine a huge outcry if dressage was removed from the Olympic schedule.

Top image: Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro in Rio by Hippo Foto – Dirk Caremans, courtesy of the FEI

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