Changes to the Olympic equestrian competitions in time for Tokyo 2020 moved a step nearer during the recent FEI General Assembly in Puerto Rico, where potential future formats for showjumping, dressage and eventing were put forward.
As FEI President Ingmar De Vos commented; “Olympic agenda 2020 is a driving force, but we already knew that changes needed to be made because we want to remain relevant in today’s ever changing sporting landscape and gain the exposure and visibility our sport deserves. We need to make it easier to understand, attract young and larger audiences, be broadcast friendly and see more nations represented in our sport.”
More nations — or flags, as they are referred to — means greater coverage for the sport and in order to accommodate greater participation it is proposed that all equestrian teams will cap at three riders, with no drop score. In eventing — or, as proposed, Equestrian Triathlon, a new name that better relates to the sport and incidentally is already being used on the Rio 2016 website — all competitors will complete a short dressage test in one day. Cross-country remains the same although it is suggested that just the top six or seven teams will take part in the team jumping, with team members jumping one after another, to provide an instant team result.
Two formats have been put forward for dressage but, sadly for purists of the sport, both have seemingly axed the grand prix special — despite it being considered the ultimate dressage test. Format A will use the grand prix — possibly a shorter version — to select the top 18 riders to go forward to the freestyle and decide medals. A spectator-friendly freestyle would also decide the team competition. The more straightforward Format B would use the grand prix for the team competition and the freestyle for the top 18 to decide medals.
A jump-off would determine first place in both individual and team showjumping competitions. If team gold is decided by a jump-off, all three horse and rider combinations would compete against the clock with the best score to count. Another option for the team competition is that top 10 teams start with zero penalties, in the medal-decider final.
In the first instance these changes enable more nations to take part and take less time to reach a conclusion, which is seen as a good thing as the audience can follow the competition more easily and not have to sit around for too long. And more importantly they are not taking up large chunks of the TV schedule.
It would seem that, ultimately, if equestrian sports want to be part of the Olympics then accepting change to the format looks to be inevitable. But ‘what about the tradition of our sport’ — the first argument often used against change. Well, realistically, what we might think of as tradition has in fact been relatively short-lived throughout the history of equestrian competition.
Change is nothing new, as equestrian sports and their formats have been evolving ever since the first Olympic competitions in 1900. In the first dressage competition, in 1912, horses performed three tests, one of which included jumping and another ‘obedience’. Teams were originally for three riders and, for those who can remember, and after some tutting from traditionalists, it was only in 1996 that the freestyle to music was included for the first time. And no-one can deny how much freestyle has widened the appeal of dressage. Even comedian Eddie Izzard has a routine based on it, Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood recently commented that Jeremy Vine looked like he ‘should have been at the dressage championships’ and historian Lucy Worsley recently produced a TV programme on the history of dressage, although it was rather irritatingly called ‘the art of horse dancing’ (no, that is not a suggestion). I am convinced that none of those would have been cited ten years ago.
Meanwhile, the first eventing competitions — or military as it was then called and still is by some nations — took five days and started with an endurance test of 34 miles of roads. The dressage test took place on the final day! The present format, without steeplechase, was only adopted in 2004, while the rules for Olympic showjumping have changed and been simplified many times over the years.
Of course, equestrians want to be part of the Olympic movement just like they have been since the first Olympics in 1900. If that means accepting change then so be it.
What the governing bodies of the different disciplines now really need to work out is what changes are acceptable and what really aren’t. But what is patently obviously looking at the history of equestrian sport in the Olympic movement is that there really isn’t much that could be described as traditional apart from the fact that horses have always been included. We need to keep it that way.
The FEI will present more detailed format change proposals based on feedback from The General Assembly at the FEI Sports Forum 2016 in Lausanne (SUI) on 4-5 April 2016.
Image: FEI President Ingmar De Vos speaks to the FEI General Assembly in Puerto Rico, by Richard Juilliart, courtesy of the FEI