The Federation Equestre Internationale has recently decided to change the Olympic format for the three-day event in Athens.The top-placed 25 riders after the show jumping round will jump a second round over a different course to determine the individual medals. The move seems to have been met with general approval. Even those senior riders and experienced administrators opposed to the addition of a second show jumping test agree: It is more important to preserve the worldwide exposure for the sport that the Olympic Games provide than stick to a hidebound definition of the sport and risk removal from the Olympic calendar.
This new format will follow the usual dressage/speed and endurance/show jumping sequence with which followers of the sport are familiar. The total score achieved to that point will be used to determine the team placings. The only change is that in Athens the top 25 after the first show jumping course will jump again. Riders will jump in reverse order of standings and they will carry into the final show jumping test the scores they have earned from their performances in the other three parts of the competition.
This new format was used for the first time at the Burghley Horse Trials last September. Somewhat to my surprise, riders who had horses at Burghley did not report any change in their horses’ attitudes or performances from the team show jumping round to the individual show jumping round. The sport seems united in its desire to retain its place on the Olympic calendar and is willing to change to satisfy the International Olympic Committee’s requirements. It is interesting to note, however, that the world championship format, which will be used in Jerez, Spain, this September at the World Equestrian Games, is the format with which we all are familiar. There will only be one show jumping round and each rider’s score will be used to compute both the team and the individual placing. FEI insiders do not foresee any further changes in the Olympic format so long as the IOC requirements remain unchanged.
This means that the roads and tracks and steeplechase phases are safe for at least the next quadrennium. There has been a strong, concerted effort by western European nations to remove the steeplechase and roads and tracks from the Olympics, turning it into merely a horse trials. For the moment this argument has not succeeded.
But there is a great deal of money in the breeding of sport horses in western Europe, and these breeders know that if they could remove the endurance aspect from the event, their horses could come to dominate eventing as they currently dominate dressage and show jumping. The steeplechase and roads and tracks impose a further requirement of endurance beyond the grace, elegance and power that the western European horses already possess in abundance. However, if you are going to be competitive at an Olympic three-day event, you are going to have to go very fast over very long distances. This means that endurance is a critical factor in the competition. If your horse is not a Thoroughbred or close to it, your chances of success are slight. The arguments to remove the steeplechase and roads and tracks have been wrapped up in safety, land use and expense issues. But when you answer all those other arguments away (and they can be refuted easily), the underlying financial issues relative to the breeding of sport horses remain.
One overlooked aspect of the World Equestrian Games is that nations must now qualify for one of the limited slots to compete in the Olympics at Athens. Bluntly stated, if the U.S. does not finish in the top six in Spain, we are only a case of colic and a bad over-reach at the 2003 Pan American Games in Brazil away from not sending a team to Athens. When the overriding importance of maintaining a successful Olympic presence is thrown into an already stressful situation, the pressures on the USA delegation to do well are greater than ever. It is hard to go to a foreign country to try and win a medal at the World Equestrian Games. It becomes exceedingly difficult when the riders know that the Olympic hopes for the U.S. rest to a large extent on our results in Jerez.
This is all a tremendously expensive effort. And the expenses associated with sending our teams to these major competitions are coming at a time when the USET’s fundraising efforts are under a cloud of uncertainty. Despite the months and years of wrangling, there is no clear solution in sight for the future governance of the sport. Past USET supporters are becoming reluctant to fund the efforts of lawyers on both sides rather than the training and fielding of international teams. Not only major donors, but the regular membership are sitting on their checkbooks and waiting to see how it is all going to come out. So the expenses are building, but the donations are slow to come in the doors at Gladstone.
The reluctance on the part of team supporters is understandable but it does not help our coach, Mark Phillips, sleep any better at night. He is in a Catch-22 situation. He has to fly more horses farther with less money than he has ever done in the past, and the pressure to succeed is growing exponentially, because of the Olympic qualification requirement. We can only keep our fingers crossed and pray for the historical generosity of the U.S. equestrian community. This time, our “team effort” is going to have to be spread across the country.