A press release from the FEI popped into my mailbox last weekend of the sort probably not expected to be widely reproduced.
FEI president Ingmar de Vos celebrated the clean sheet returned from the dope-testing of 30% of all horses (though one should surely start from the premise that we don’t expect any positives – it is only shocking news when there is one). He also emphasised the achievements of Michael Jung and Charlotte Dujardin in retaining their titles with the same horses, and for the lesson in determination, longevity and courage exhibited by Nick Skelton in landing individual gold aged 58. To me, this picture of Nick and Big Star says it all.
There is a lively campaign in Britain to see Nick nominated for the prestigious BBC TV Sports Personality of the Year. I don’t think that goes far enough. A knighthood is surely in order for the grand “old man” of British jumping after his lifetime of achievement. And while we are about it, why not a knighthood for Carl Hester too – who else has mentored an entire medal-winning team while riding for it himself? Not to mention his ambassadorship of the light way of riding typified by all the top teams in Rio.
I think Ingmar’s statement was essentially a broadside to the IOC about the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) of equestrianism, for we are still under pressure to make major changes to remain in the Olympic movement.
Mostly “good news” stories came out of Rio’s equestrianism, bar the show jumping “blood” eliminations in which the FEI came over as acting hard and fast on abuse; if only the FEI were this diligent away from Rio.
And while dressage’s social media was convinced that Parzival’s early departure was the repercussion of long-term rollkur on an old horse, most general sports media would not have known about this and went with the heart-warming “I retired because I love my horse” line.
It will also be hard for the IOC to argue that show jumping is not popular when it attracted such huge crowds to Deodoro against a background of otherwise dismal ticket sales at the whole tranche of Olympic venues.
Ingmar could have gone further and pointed out what else the individual gold medallists had in common: extremely long-term relationships with horses produced through the grades by themselves, and for whom mega bucks have been rejected.
In reality, at least two of these horses would have posed management challenges for a buyer with a big wallet but no feel or experience. But no matter: horse retention isn’t just about keeping a stellar ride for your country, but also competing it sparingly, ignoring some major prize pots along the way, so that it peaks exactly on the big day required. Sam was not Jung’s first choice for Rio but you can be sure he was prepared as if he were. That is another reason why Dujardin, Jung and Skelton were unassailable.
But highlighting the sanctity of long-term partnerships is a double-edged sword. They will become even more of a rarity if the FEI goes ahead with teams-of-three and other controversial plans for the future format of the Olympics.
To reach its target of extra flags, the FEI will have to allocate many countries a first-time Olympic berth. This will intensify the market for made horses and has the potential to leave the nations with heritage in elite sport with an even shallower pool of horsepower than some already are suffering.
I am sure more national federations will organise schemes to secure horses up to Tokyo 2020 and beyond. It will be interesting to see how quickly the most successful of these schemes so far (except at Rio itself, alas,) the Show Jumping Fund of the Netherlands (SFN,) can re-stock following the imminent sale of Zenith and co.
Rio also gave a few pointers that the “dumbing down” many predict will accompany format change is unnecessary if qualification levels are upheld.
In show jumping, the opening round looked more taxing than London, but while some were inevitably over-faced they did not produce the “bad pictures” the FEI often worries about. Sheikh Ali al Thani made the top six of the individual at Qatar’s first attempt. He was expensively mounted, but one has to concede their jump-off errors were down to rider green-ness, not a lack of ability.
Pierre Michelet is the least politically correct cross-country designer on the planet. To me, the surprise in eventing was not that he produced such a tough track but that four-star riders familiar with Michelet tracks were surprised he acted true to form. Less established eventing countries actually made a good fist of riding it. Only two of the 13 teams failed to complete, China, Japan, Chile and Zimbabwe had individuals in the eventual top 35 and Brazil and Finland were also in there after cross-country.
The number of dressage starters increased to 60, with four to a team, compared with 50 in London with three to a team. I seriously doubt the big tour circuit can dredge up enough extra pairings of acceptable standard to fill the 60-horse quota if reverting to three to a team from 2020. Four riders did not even score 64%, the Minimum Eligibility Requirement, in Rio.
Much emphasis is put on “image.” Six minutes is a mighty long time to have to watch a lumpen Grand Prix test. In jumping, a bad round is over in under a minute. In cross-country, cameras can pan to whoever is going better. In dressage the knowledgable TV viewer will take the opportunity to break off and make a cup of coffee when someone Not Very Good is in the arena. But a first-time viewer who doesn’t stick around to watch Valegro, Desperados or Verdades (or even know that better is to come) could well form a poor opinion of what dressage is about.
Meanwhile, apologies for my prolonged absence from the blog-o-sphere. I have been Down Under, doing Something Completely Different. My old friend, concert pianist Piers Lane AO, is long-time artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, north Queensland – 30 concerts from July 28-August 8! When he also landed the same, prestigious role at the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition (July 6-23, with four nights of concerto finals in Sydney Opera House broadcast live by ABC) I resolved to make the trip of a lifetime to attend both events, even though it left me out of the loop for Rio. Suffice to say I had a ball, and made myself useful at the Festival as pianists’ page turner.
I have done a fair bit of turning at major venues and in the recording studio over the years and, luckily, am unfazed by the risk of fluffing a turn, dropping the music all over the keyboard or missing my chair on the way back down – believe me, it can happen. In Townsville I was unexpectedly invited to take the spotlight myself in one of the morning “chat shows.” This was a historic moment for me – the first and only time I will walk on stage ahead of maestro Andrey Gugnin, the sensational young Russian virtuoso!
After learning I was an equestrian journalist and not a professional musician, many audience members apparently Googled me and thereafter came over to air their views about horse sport. This was both lovely and demoralising, for it underlined how mysterious equestrianism still appears to the mass population.
Some who had read online about my campaigning against abuse in Middle East endurance wanted to discuss horseracing, unaware it was a different sport. When I mentioned I was sorry not to be going to Rio, some didn’t know equestrian was an Olympic sport. Those that did still thought “horse dancing” was fairly new, having only become aware of dressage through the headline-grabbing efforts of Valegro at London 2012.
Some described the riders they had heard of, such as Andrew Hoy and Mark Todd, as show jumpers, didn’t know the Aussie eventing team was fancied for a medal and hadn’t heard of Queensland’s own star-turn, Christopher Burton.
Once Rio was underway, the FEI’s mission to engage social media worked well, with the “two hearts” concept widely picked up. But having piqued peoples’ interest, it’s important that when they then dip into equestrian on TV they can work out who is in the lead and why.
A neighbour who is knowledgable about cycling and tennis decided to watch the eventing on TV. She could not figure out why William Fox-Pitt was docked 20 penalties for not knocking down a cross-country fence when other riders received only four penalties for lowering a pole in the stadium. I explained the nuances and she said she would give eventing another go sometime. But how many other potential fans thought “this is impenetrable tosh” and reached for the remote?
Bizarrely, the best explanation of dressage to the ingénue I have heard about came on BBC Radio 4’s morning politics show, Today. This link may not work in some countries, but involves Debi Thomas, an early trainer of Dujardin, and prima ballerina Deborah Bull in discussion about the hidden skills (item starts at 01.44).
In educating a new public we still have a mountain to climb. We don’t have to change the format or how equestrian is judged. We just have to explain to people the format and how equestrian is judged.