Please indulge me for a few paragraphs – there is a point to my recounting my amazing Christmas break in Russia.
A concert pianist friend invited me to Maestro Valery Gergiev’s International Piano Festival at the famed Mariinsky theatres in St Petersburg (December 19-30), which has a tie up with the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition of which my chum was artistic director. Gergiev had offered concerto dates to the main prize-winners. So as well as supporting the Sydney guys, we also heard other sensations including Russia’s Daniil Trifinov, Frenchman Lucas Debargue and Korea’s Seong Jin Cho, and met several great performer-teachers of the renowned Russian piano tradition. I was also chuffed to exchange pleasantries at the breakfast buffet with the wife of my viola hero, Yuri Bashmet.
For someone who wanted, as a kid, to be Martha Argerich as much as I wanted to be Marion Coakes, the festival was all rather fabulous. You’ll get the picture if I liken my enjoyment to binge-watching the “best bits” of Valegro, La Biosthetique Sam and Big Star all in one go.
Even established pianists with globe-trotting careers lobby to play with Gergiev. You could call his festival the “piano Olympics,” but there are two differences. Firstly, Russians will always number among the world’s top classical musicians through talent, nurture and hard work that has, ahem, no need of the chemical assistance meted out to their compatriots in sport.
Secondly, and more relevant to where this blog is heading, is that Maestro Gergiev’s interpretation of “international festival” isn’t the involvement of as many flags as possible irrespective of competence. The young Uzbek, Nuron Mukumi, was invited to perform because he is super-talented and because an audience would be delighted to pay to listen to him for an hour; the fact he comes from a remote country and someone thought it would would be nice to encourage him didn’t need to come into it.
So inevitably, I ended up contemplating the glaringly different attitude of horse sport that allows ordinariness to hang onto the coat-tails of excellence. And once again I was moved to lament the consequences of the FEI’s Olympic format changes for 2020 and beyond.
We have heard so much about the IOC’s emphasis on driving new TV audiences and social media traffic to horse sport. This what the FEI hopes to achieve by involving more fledging horse nations than ever before. To accommodate them within the existing overall cap of 200 horses, teams will be limited to three riders and the jumping effort in eventing made easier.
What we haven’t heard so much about is what we will do if large swathes of our hypothetical new audience notice that quite a few of the folks they watching are not very good and switch off. The shouldn’t-really- be-there riders will make up a larger proportion of future Olympic start lists. How does the newcomer know that if he sticks with it the likes of Isabell Werth, Michael Jung or Eric Lamaze will eventually hove into view? Under-estimate at your peril the public’s ability to spot the difference.
I discussed “dumbing-down” with a dressage personality during the London International Horse Show. I remarked that at least dressage does not face the same safety worries as jumping and eventing. She replied: “I disagree that dumbing down doesn’t pose a threat to life in dressage. It does, because our audience will die of boredom!”
It is specious to cite other sports that have a seasoning of get-rounders. In athletics, it’s all over very quickly in the sprint heats, for instance, and viewers’ eyes are drawn to the leading pack. The stragglers may not even be in camera shot.
But, in horse sport, you are stuck with one rider in action at any time. Six minutes is mighty long to have to concentrate on someone struggling to produce a recognisable piaffe or tempi change.
In St Petersburg, I had expected audiences to be knowledgeable, and they mostly were. But the hall was also teeming with tourists – the Mariinsky is usually on the “to do” list even when visitors are not habitual culture-vultures.
Chatting with many English-speakers in the intervals, many were thrilled and awestruck to have heard a titanic piano concerto played in real life by a true virtuoso. Even if they could not pinpoint why, they recognised it was a cut above the sort of “Johann Strauss’s Greatest Hits” CD you might buy an aged aunt at Christmas. Years ago, I had similar conversations about the impact of Torvill and Dean on figure skating. You didn’t need to know your quadruple axels from your triple salchows (or how to spell them!) to appreciate the pairing’s sublimity.
Equestrianism is more akin to skating and gymnastics in that the main appeal is the aesthetics of the athletic effort, quite different from the grunt, sweat and muscle-burn of first-past-the-post as in running, cycling or swimming. There is a good reason why the London 2012 crowds described dressage as “horse dancing” after seeing Valegro.
For sure, I am comparing apples and oranges, but sometimes you have to immerse yourself in another world to put your own into some sort of context. It’s almost an insult to high-achievers in other spheres of endeavour that equestrianism applies a form of positive discrimination to give the less able a shoe-in to greatest stage of all.
The cap on teams of four has always been tough on the many talented riders from the leading equestrian nations who are spoilt for choice. With teams of three, there will now be even more of the brilliant and dedicated sitting at home while riders they would trounce 51 weeks of the year get to Tokyo. My heart goes out to them: the situation is pants.
There are, of course, occasions when a heroic failure puts your sport in the spotlight. Huge character that he was, Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards had no business participating in the ski jumping in the winter Olympics at Calgary 1988. In exactly the opposite of what we are now seeing in horse sport, in 1990 the IOC drastically tightened qualifications. It even became known as the “the Eddie the Eagle Rule.” Edwards never qualified again.
As for the desirability of encouraging the Eddies into horse sport, safety and welfare is a whole separate debate. This was raised at the International Jumping Riders Club meeting last month where it was clear no one had much faith in FEI Certificates of Capability. I daresay we will see even more of the “pop-up” shows that the FEI will occasionally sanction for riders unable or unwilling to travel far for qualifying purposes.
In their first columns of 2017 for Horse & Hound, Carl Hester and Mark Phillips again weighed into the Olympic format debate. Carl described the dressage proposals as “unbearable” and noted that at Rio a number of riders did not manage to replicate their qualifying scores.
Mark lamented the skewering of the core premise of eventing with the new substitution option once the contest is underway. (That seems the only way to guarantee that the number of teams to finish will make double figures). Mark also thought that setting both the Olympic and WEG at three-star will impact on the future viability of Badminton, Burghley and the Rolex etc.; how many will trouble to produce a horse to four-star level now it has no qualifying or educational purpose?
The Olympic changes are mostly geared towards meeting the perceived needs of a new audience we know little about. Human behaviour has changed with our immersion in new technology, but one thing that hasn’t altered is the instinct to spot when we have been sold a lemon. As Monica Theodorescu and Isabell Werth told the Geneva meeting, no one wants to watch 20 people scoring 60 per cent in dressage.
What if audience figures by, say, 2024 still don’t placate the IOC? What have we left to re-visit if and when we are forced to justify our existence all over again?
Someone involved in the decision-making process told me these changes will keep horse sport in the Games “just a little bit longer.” How long is that, then, one Olympic cycle or two? Have we gone through all this angst just for Tokyo and whoever gets 2024? And is there a masterplan for clawing back all we have already sacrificed if we find ourselves in the non-Olympic world in eight or 12 years’ time?