Have you succumbed to Olympic qualifying fever yet? It may be a bit too soon unless you represent the Far East and are now facing up to the big difference between dreams and reality.
The FEI recently issued a press release about the first ever Olympic team slots in eventing achieved by China and Thailand, at a specially arranged qualifier in Saumur, France.
Having opened up Olympic participation to extra nations, our international governing body is, naturally, going to milk it when the first two newbies confirm their team slots. But what the press release doesn’t say is that this fledging region was allowed to qualify at the old 2* level – baby stuff, really, in the context of elite sport. Nor does it tell us that only one rider from each of China and Thailand has thus far has achieved the Minimum Eligibility Requirement they need to actually start at Tokyo 2020. Only one rider from the Hong Kong squad – NB the best they could muster – even managed to complete at Saumur, and that’s someone who has been based in the UK for most of his senior career.
Frankly, the prospect is terrifying, even with the dumbed-down nature of the new look Olympic tests. So I thought it was doubly interesting that this Olympic qualifier took place at the same time the joint inquest into the deaths of young event riders Caitlyn Fischer and Olivia Inglis was in full flow down-under.
This inquest reconvenes in a month’s time in Sydney, having already sat for two solid weeks. I can’t imagine the New South Wales deputy coroner Derek Lee hasn’t already formulated some very trenchant opinions about our sport’s attitude to rider safety.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the more we encourage riders to believe that competing “internationally” is an entitlement, not an aspiration, the more we are obliged to save them from themselves. For sure anything involving horses is high risk. Competitors from past eras often feel riders must accept these risks – you could be trampled while pooh-picking in your paddock, after all. But that’s no longer the Right Answer for all and any of our regulated sports. More and more people are being encouraged to compete, with some qualifications eased when they should be more difficult to achieve.
Some eye-watering evidence about risk management – or rather, the absence of it – at Australian horse trials has come out so far. We’ve heard that many people raised concerns beforehand about the fence where Olivia sustained her fatal rotational fall at Scone. Paul Tapner, no less, went as far as saying he would not have wanted to jump it. We heard that the ambulance-man turned out to be more of an enhanced first-aider than a paramedic and did not possess the right equipment. News that Equestrian Australia, the national federation, effectively handcuffed its own accident investigator left an especially sour taste.
I am also curious why emphasis so far has been put on Equestrian Australia’s role, as opposed to the FEI’s which is, after all, the governing body in charge of global safety rules. Maybe Mr Lee does not quite yet understand the division of responsibility, or yet plans to call a FEI executive from Lausanne HQ?
Distinguished cross-country course-designers and technical delegates like Mike Etherington-Smith, Alec Lochore and John Nicholson have testified so far, but they were representing their own views, surely? They were not there to answer questions on the FEI’s behalf about why, for instance, FEI cross-country guidelines read as they do, or why frangible devices are “strongly recommended” but still not mandatory.
In terms of enhancing safety for the sport overall, many dedicated individuals work 24-7 behind the scenes, but to outsiders the horse world does not exude the impression of taking rider safety as seriously as it does anti-doping. A worrying study into air jackets has been publicly available for a month, but I see no official response from the FEI or manufacturers.
When I joined the full-time editorial staff of Horse & Hound nearly 40 years ago, I was fresh from three years training on regional newspapers. I’d been covering criminal and civil cases at least once a week, so it was me whom H&H dispatched when anything of horsey interest popped up in a court. I certainly recall being struck, even back then, by the defensiveness of horse people compared with witnesses in other types of inquest I had covered.
We Brits regard ourselves as equestrian leaders and innovators, but I am pretty sure that the research into safer helmets that accelerated here in the ‘80s would not have happened but for two rider deaths coming before the same Oxford coroner. The film star John Hurt was the prime witness in one case, so the “hidden dangers” of a quiet horse ride in the countryside garnered huge media attention. That coroner’s response pretty well shamed the British authorities into action.
And as far as competitive riding is concerned, Australia is not the only top eventing nation that can appear casual, even in these more enlightened times. Two seasons ago an unlicensed doctor regularly officiated at UK national events. We found out not because our equestrian bodies alerted us, but because he was struck off by industry watchdog the General Medical Council and it made the national news. At least two injured riders suffered by his actions.
There has been this raising-of-the-drawbridge when riders are killed as long as I can recall. Decades on, secrecy still abounds over the outcome of “investigations” into cross-country fatalities, so I was not entirely surprised when another UK coroner approached me for a photo of a fence where someone died, after hearing I had taken one on my phone. No one in officialdom was either willing or able to help that coroner get an idea of the accident site he was supposed to be assessing.
When media hear there has been a rider death – usually via social media nowadays – it’s odds-on a governing body will fall back on the “sub judice” excuse not to comment (meaning a subject is under judicial consideration and, therefore, prohibited from public discussion elsewhere). Presumably they do not realise there are many occasions when the sub judice rule does not apply….
In the run-up to Olivia and Caitlyn’s inquests, I read a number of very detailed past reports by the New South Wales coroner – industrial accidents, terrible house fires, avoidable car wrecks et al. He doesn’t hold back, so equestrians must brace themselves for some tough talk. It could be all the more uncomfortable because we are so unused to hearing what really goes on when the worst happens at a competition. But hear the coroner, we must.