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Tokyo 2020, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

With all sports available in their entirety through the Channel 7 app, 7+, Australians enjoyed more of the equestrian Olympic events in Tokyo than ever before.

Unfortunately, they might be wishing their sport had received rather less coverage than it did… 

Denzil O’Brien, a former CEO of Equestrian Australia, picks the good, the bad and the ugly of these memorable Games, and slams the format changes and the effect they will have on equestrian events’ social licence to operate in future Olympiads.  

Fans of equestrian sport often complain that their sport receives almost zero mainstream news reporting or broadcast coverage, and in general this is true. While in Europe showjumping and dressage are almost mainstream and receive quite significant airtime (usually courtesy of streaming channels such as Eurosport), here in Australia, equestrian sport might just as well not exist if one measures its coverage by the media.

Even in the congratulatory round up of Australia’s medal tally after the Tokyo Olympics, Andrew Hoy’s achievements – being Australia’s oldest Olympian, competing at his eighth Olympics and winning a silver and a bronze medal – were by and large absent from the count. Yet despite excellent coverage courtesy of Channel 7’s app, there were times when equestrian fans around the world were wishing their sport had received rather less coverage…

First, we had the rather unedifying spectacle of a nominated member of our Australian showjumping team virtually being stopped at the airport from heading off to Tokyo, having tested positive for metabolites of cocaine. His suspension from the team meant that Australia could no longer field a team (the rules governing all equestrian sport at this Olympics have changed, and more on this later).

This left only two riders, with neither of them technically able to compete as individuals because they had been nominated as team members. The situation was further complicated by a social media uproar over the nominated travelling reserve refusing to send his horse over to Europe to endure quarantine, on the grounds that he wasn’t going to get a ride anyway.

So, no team, no reserve.

Edwina Tops-Alexander riding the 13-year-old bay mare Identity Vitseroel, with whom she has been partnered with since 2019
Edwina Tops-Alexander riding the 13-year-old bay mare Identity Vitseroel, with whom she has been partnered with since 2019

Conspiracy theories about rigged selection and conflicts of interest flooded the social media platforms, all of them allegations that equestrian fans are familiar with over many past decades. All this kerfuffle was taking place very much in the public eye as equestrian’s ruling body, Equestrian Australia (EA), has been in trouble for some years now, with a revolving door of Board members and CEOs culminating in Sport Australia withdrawing its funding until it could recast itself as a modern organisation with appropriate governance.

This particular episode in EA’s history is well-documented on the internet, and it is not my intention to go over this here, except to observe that the disdain and even contempt for the national organisation expressed by those keyboard warriors has been quite shocking.

There was a missed opportunity for the CEO or the Chair of the Board of EA to make a statement clarifying the timeline of Tokyo’s selection process, the reporting of the positive drug test and precisely when the reserve had decided not to travel.

In any case, the dilemma was resolved through long intense negotiations between EA, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI, the equestrian sports’ governing body), the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which saw the two remaining team members permitted to compete as individuals.

Such is the nature of jumping at this level that neither qualified for the finals, and as team member Edwina Alexander commented, “It’s a long way to go for an 89 second appearance”. Both acquitted themselves superbly, Edwina having only one rail down, and Kate Laurie wisely choosing to withdraw after four rails down with absolutely no chance of qualifying for the finals.

Jessica Springsteen, Bruce’s daughter, earned an Olympic silver medal for the US. They lost in a thrilling jump-off with Sweden in the team showjumping.

Lucky for us, we were able to witness their performances in their entirety through the Channel 7 app, 7+. As a long-time fanatic, I cannot describe the joy I experienced being able to watch every second of the dressage, the showjumping and the eventing competitions.

The closest I have ever experienced this before was at the Rio Games in 2016, when commentator Vicki Roycroft, herself a three-time Olympian in two equestrian sports, eventing and showjumping, gained so many fans during the middle-of-the-night coverage of the dressage competition that Channel 7 broadcast the cross-country competition in full, on mainstream TV.

Sadly though, this second-by-second coverage has also allowed us to see some pretty dreadful moments in horse sport.

The dressage competition will always excite heated discussion about horses being used and abused, as they perform beautiful elegant movements which some allege are simply formalised versions of natural movements, while others point to the unnatural position of the horse’s head, the stilted action of their legs, and often the overall impression of constraint and control rather than of freedom and expression. That debate is ongoing and unresolvable, and not one to have now.

With very few Grands Prix starts under his belt, 10-year-old Gio was something of a gamble for Charlotte Dujardin heading to Japan. But her faith was justly rewarded with the pair came home with a Team Bronze medal.

The cross-country was unfortunately marred by the euthanasia of one horse with a catastrophic ligament injury. A horse death in the cross-country at an Olympic Games is fairly unusual, records showing that the last such occasion was at the Sydney Games in 2000.

On the other hand, the cross-country excelled in superb performances by horses and riders, with Australia’s team of Andrew Hoy, Shane Rose and Kevin McNab riding superbly, coming home with only time penalties over a testing course. They netted us a team silver medal and an individual bronze medal for Andrew Hoy, maintaining Australia’s record as one of the preeminent eventing nations.

Team Silver and Individual Bronze at Tokyo, Andrew Hoy riding Vassilly de Lassos

In showjumping, the focus of debate continued to swirl about in the ether of social media. Showjumping is incredibly demanding of the horse, and the competition at Olympic level demonstrated that demand in spades.

Perhaps I should now touch on the format change for these Games, which has resulted in some fairly ugly visuals and much debate.

The Olympic vision is one of universality and inclusivity. It is in the Olympic Charter that the Games should demonstrate that any nation, anywhere, can qualify for, and hope to achieve glory.

Yet the Olympic ‘business’ is under constant scrutiny, given its history of corruption, vote-rigging and dubious choices of host cities (among other scandals). It has been rare in the past for purpose-built Olympic venues to provide on-going legacy value for the host nation, and this is especially true of equestrian venues. Staging equestrian events at Olympic Games level is ridiculously costly for the host nation, and this is often used to pressure the IOC into dropping equestrian events from the Games, particularly eventing.

The IOC’s goals of universality and inclusivity present difficulties for many nations because of the costs involved in gaining appropriate qualifications. These difficulties are significant enough when only one athlete is involved, but equestrian sport involves two athletes – the rider and the horse – and they both have to qualify as a combination and at the same time.

In an inclusivity attempt, this year, the IOC took an each way bet, but the disparity in the results between more experienced and less experienced nations was stark.

For those nations without a strong equestrian tradition (most African nations, for example) gaining such qualifications will invariably mean that their riders must train and live in Europe or the USA and source their horses there as well. This is very costly for the national federations and for the athletes themselves. Horses are not canoes or tennis racquets. When a horse ‘breaks’, you can’t simply go out and get another one from the horse shop.

So, for the Tokyo Games the IOC agreed to a format change for all three equestrian sports – dressage, eventing and showjumping – which saw the number of team members reduced from four to three.

This meant that if there was a set number of competitors for each competition, more nations could theoretically qualify, and ‘universality’ would be there for all to see.

Except that the IOC seemed to be having a bet each way. Fewer members per team, sure, but a peculiar set of new and untested rules in each of the sports which allowed a horse and rider substitution at varying stages of the competition (so-called ‘alternates’).

Previously, a team would drop the worst score of the four, and use the best three to make a team score. But at Tokyo we saw showjumping teams qualify from nations which had never before gained a qualification for the team event at an Olympic Games (Israel and Morocco), one nation which last qualified in 2008 because it was the host nation (China), one which last qualified at the Rome Olympics in 1960 (Egypt), and one which last qualified on 1932 (the Czech Republic).

Not one of these teams progressed from the qualifying event into the team final event. Between them, the 15 riders in these 5 teams accrued 166 penalty points (rails down, and time), 3 were withdrawn and one was eliminated.

By comparison, the 30 riders in the top 10 teams which qualified for the final accrued a total of only 147 penalties.

Mexico, Japan and Israel were unable to get all 3 riders to complete the course.

Ireland’s first team member (actually an ‘alternate’ under the strange new rules, a last-minute substitution) had several rails down and then the horse actually fell at a jump, resulting in elimination for this combination. As a result, Ireland withdrew from the competition as there was no possibility of their team qualifying.

This was not the case with several other teams, however, where riders who normally would have withdrawn after having rails down continued and accrued substantial penalty scores, presumably ‘for the team’. One team had 10 rails down between them, plus time penalties.

A great deal of the spectacle created by the new format was ugly, with horses crashing through the fences, multiple refusals, several riders falling off, and yet another horse falling.

Despite all this, the final team jumping event also managed to thrill us with Olympic showjumping at its finest.

Sweden went through the qualifying event without a single penalty, and took gold in a riveting jump-off, after they and the USA finished equal on zero additional penalties after the final round. In the end it came down to time, and Sweden carried the day.

The Swedish show jumpers excelled. Sweden went through the qualifying event without a single penalty, and took gold in a riveting jump-off against the USA.

It is difficult to imagine a more fitting end to this great competition.

Rodrigo Pessoa was one of many professionals who fought hard against the format changes before they were introduced. In a scathing interview with World of Showjumping, he gives even more reasons why it cannot work out and hopes the FEI starts listening and goes back to the drawing board.

As an aside, there were also a few anomalies apparent during the jumping competitions, both individual and teams.

One combination was eliminated because there was a slight sign of blood on the horse’s flank, apparently from a spur. Blood in the horse’s mouth or on its flanks is automatic elimination, regardless of the degree of the injury.

But another horse had blood streaming from a nostril but was allowed to continue because it was deemed to be a spontaneous nosebleed (epistaxis) rather than the result of a pulmonary haemorrhage, which can be fatal. How a showjumping judge can tell the difference is worth a question. In racing, any blood from a nostril is deemed to be the result of a pulmonary haemorrhage until a veterinary examination, and the horse is automatically banned for a set period.

The visuals of a horse with blood coming out of a nostril being allowed to continue were challenging.

Sadly then, we come to the jumping section of modern pentathlon. This is a competition in which the athletes ride horses provided by the host nation, judged to be appropriate for the task.

The Modern Pentathlon is completely out of step with modern views on horse welfare, horse management, and horsemanship.

The riders have but 20 minutes to get to know their horse, and they can jump 5 fences before the competition starts. The course can be up to 1.20m and the rules are vastly different from those of ‘real’ showjumping.

Competitors can remount if they fall off, for example, and even if the horse falls, they can continue until a second fall of horse or rider.

The images of the German athlete in tears because her horse wouldn’t jump, and of her coach punching the horse on the rump to make it go, have been widely circulated, the outrage has been far-fetching and volcanic.

Many viewers had no idea that this particular horse sport is not governed by the FEI, but by the Union International de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM).

The showjumping component at this Games demonstrated quite clearly how quaint and out of touch the UIMP is, if they believe that using and abusing live animals in this way is acceptable. The behaviour of a number of these athletes, male and female, showed that for them the horse is simply a piece of equipment no different from an épée or a pistol.

It is difficult to imagine a single circumstance in which a sport’s social licence to operate has come under greater threat.

Indeed, the furore has resulted in the UIPM announcing that they will work with the FEI to review the role of the jumping component, and with luck it will be removed or radically altered, so that we will never again witness such a tragic spectacle and such dreadful display of poor horsemanship. All credit to the eventual medallists, all of whom clearly were experienced and capable riders.

So on balance, much can be learned from the Tokyo Olympics:

  • The 3-to-a-team concept may need revisiting by the FEI and the IOC. Some unforeseen consequences of this change may need examining, including the potential perils of not having one or more reserves should one of your athletes – rider or horse – be unavailable on the day.
  • The team showjumping really only worked because the best teams got to fight it out in a thriller on the day. Watching the lower ranked teams trying to qualify through to the final was sometimes painful.
  • Universality and inclusion are all very well. But these goals might result in teams which simply should not be there demonstrating their lack of competence and its impact on their horses’ welfare on the most public stage, and this will seriously threaten equestrian’s already challenged social licence to operate.
  • The showjumping component of modern pentathlon is the antithesis of modern. It is completely out of step with modern views on horse welfare, horse management, and horsemanship (does a non-gendered word for this exist?).

Are we happy that we could watch every second of the various equestrian competitions live this time? An emphatic ‘Yes’! Are we happy with everything we saw? Not so much.

All images sourced from: https://olympics.com/tokyo-2020/en/news/photos/

Denzil O'Brien

Denzil O’Brien has worked in several distinct areas over her career: epidemiological research in spinal cord injury and horse-related injury; sports management (including 5 years as CEO of Equestrian Australia); project management with the Sixth World 3DE Championships in Adelaide in 1986; and originally scientific and educational editing. She was Management Committee member and Secretary of the Horse Federation of South Australia (Horse SA). Denzil has published on various topics, including risks in eventing and risks for horses in jumps racing.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for a cogent review and details… I wasn’t able to watch all of it.
    This is why we (Wendy Murdoch and I) did an educational webinar on SOCIAL LICENSE TO OPERATE and the tie in to WELFARE for the USA audience in the week before the Olympics…. we have to work doubly hard to ensure welfare of the HORSE is considered and furthered.
    Thank you.

  2. Thank you Dr Rebecca Husted for spreading the message on social licence! There were some amazing displays of horsemanship, and it is simply shocking that the FEI goes ahead with changes which the riders are against – specifically because of the welfare implications. How can this happen? Maybe at the very top, elite levels, equestrian sports are incompatible with the inclusivity and universality of the Olympic Charter…

  3. Modern pentathlon confuses me, they swapped real pistols for laser pistols for safety, but still use real horses and courses of 1.20m? I bet racewood simulators can supply them the show jumping simulators.

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