While Britain has performed beyond expectations in Rio, finishing second on the overall medal table, and while each medal has been won by a feat of brilliance, the fact that horse sports are contests of two hearts, two minds, two spirits may fail to register on the radar of non-equestrians.
A competition for two elite athletes competing together means that not only do horse and rider have to both be fit, sound, injury free, willing and able at the same time, but they have to have built up a partnership, usually over years, so that there is total trust.
You can generally spot the long-time duos. Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam display all those traits, as do Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. The individual dressage gold medallist has been quoted as saying that she only has to think something and Valegro does it. That is an extraordinary bond, and more.
Although Britain’s cyclists are undoubtedly brilliant, in the euphoria of the winning moment it is easy to forget that they don’t have to build up a partnership with their bike, nor nurse it through bouts of colic, lameness or simply a bad patch, and so when there are tears on podiums, those belonging to equestrians seem to double in meaning.
The tears are part-based on respect and affection for their horse and all that that means — just think of the showjumpers pointing to their mounts following clear rounds in the Deodoro stadium — but also on what has gone before. And anyone who is associated with horses will understand the endless hours of toil and emotional stress that goes hand in hand with riding one, issues that are magnified as the horse climbs the ladder in its chosen sport.
In all cases, riders will have endured sleepless nights during colic attacks; there will have been constant calls to the vet when the horse just doesn’t seem right, or a scan that shows a dreaded damaged tendon and the sinking feeling of knowing that the horse will need a year off.
Nick Skelton has been through so much of this himself — both in terms of Big Star’s lay off and his own frequent trips to casualty and lying prone hospital beds. It takes incredible will and belief to bounce back from so many setbacks. Many don’t, but all the long-standing Olympians at Rio will have been through these ups and downs that would floor other mere mortals.
It was a relief to see fuller stands during the final showjumping discipline in Deodoro. The crowds had stayed away during the eventing stadium phases and the pure dressage, which doesn’t send the best message to the IOC who have, over the years, looked to rid themselves of expensive equestrianism.
Spectators had a brilliant time at the equestrian events—when they got there. Deodoro was a long way from the centre of Rio and the Olympic Park. The newly opened BRT service was, for the most part, a fantastic success, but there was then a lengthy walk in an unusually hot Rio winter to reach the venue.
The stadium seating for the showjumping and the dressage was easily accessible, views were excellent and when you lifted your eyes up from the horses, you had the most stunning backdrop of the mountains surrounding Rio. The only niggle from a spectator’s point of view was the lack of shade in the main stadium, and for the team showjumping temperatures reached 32°C. Sitting in that heat for several hours took its toll.
On the other hand, the cross-country course was beautifully laid out with some shade in those places where spectators like to gather, such as at the water jumps. These small details are so essential to the enjoyment of onlookers.
Much of the success of the cross-country phase was down to the hard work of Jennie Smith and her team of volunteers, who had to overcome unforeseen issues, such as a sudden suspension of transport services overnight on the first Saturday, so that many people, due to start work at 7am on Sunday morning, were late.
It was volunteers who were left to seat spectators in the stands, and here the cultural differences had a massive impact on the occupancy (rather than sale) of seats. Volunteers scanning tickets for entry at events became completely unfazed by Brazilian ticket holders arriving just in time for the medal ceremony, or even after it. There was an expectation that events would run late, as in Brazil they can do, but here they didn’t. A Brazilian group called Porta dos Fundos even produced a comedy Youtube video on the subject: ‘Pontual’.
There is also a theory that empty seats weren’t actually unsold. This is confirmed by Maggie Love, a British equestrian enthusiast, in Rio as a volunteer, who tried hard to obtain a seat for the individual show jumping. However, she was told that tickets had sold out more than a week prior to the event. What happened?
Those seats reserved for athletes, ‘Olympic Family’ and others were frequently unoccupied. To viewers at home, these look like unsold seats — but they weren’t. If they are not being used perhaps the numbers reserved should be reduced for the next Olympics?
Looking ahead four years, there is a lot of faith in Japan producing a great Games, and horse sports will be held at the site of the 1964 Olympics — where only showjumpers Peter Robeson and Firecrest brought a medal back to Britain (a bronze).
It is intended that the Japan Racing Authority’s Baji Koen facility will be used, but whether or not this means that Japanese spectators will flock to the horse events remains to be seen. Japan is under-represented in horse sports, but they have a superstar in eventer Yoshi Oiwa, who should maybe start a press campaign right now on the back of what happened in Rio.
The issue of turning the quartet that currently makes up an Olympic showjumping team into a trio has also been hotly debated since the final equestrian medal ceremony at Deodoro.
The reasoning is that having fewer riders per team opens the door for other nations to compete. The great Ludger Beerbaum is in favour of maintaining the quartet, and there is no doubt that had the threesome format been used in Rio there would have been fewer nations represented in the team medal shake up, dampening the excitement factor.
All talk has been of Britain’s brilliant medal winners, but another success story in Rio was showjumping’s course-designer Guilherme Jorge. Of course, he’s a Brazilian, and so he proved a popular choice at home for this prestigious role, but he has gained experience putting together courses all over the world — he has also been assistant at two World Equestrian Games. However, the Olympics was his biggest shop window to date and it would be true to say that he did his profession proud.
Each round produced a true test without breaking horses, but there were plenty of unexpected mistakes from the best in the world. It isn’t too often that you see France’s leading lady, Penelope Leprevost, on the floor, but she was decanted by Flora de Mariposa in the first round, while spectators were robbed of the opportunity to see Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and her wonderful grey Fibonacci continue beyond round A of the individual contest after they had ploughed through the first fence.
And so with Rio’s detractors largely silenced thanks to a successful Games — although the stray bullet in the media centre turned out to be a close call — names have been forever etched on the Olympic roll of honour and dreams fulfilled as well as broken, maybe equestrians will look back on Brazil and conclude that everything came together at the eleventh hour and this was a truly a classic contest.
Images: top, Nick Skelton wins individual gold at the Rio Olympics, bottom, Charlotte Dujardin wins individual gold at the Rio Olympics, both by Richard Juilliat, courtesy of the FEI