We’ve heard this tune following every Olympics for the last 25 years, and it’s being sung again now: The Olympics have to stay ”modern” and the cost kept under control, so archaic ”minor” sports have to make way for more exciting sports that draw TV viewers.
Historically, two things have kept equestrian sports from being swept aside for beach volleyball and BMX bicycles. The first has been simple economics — no other minor sport draws 25,000 to 50,000 spectators to each session for two weeks, revenue the bean counters simply can’t ignore. Second has been the previously unwavering determination of the International Equestrian Federation’s (FEI) president to preserve them. But have we lost that commitment’
In an interview with the British magazine Horse & Hound, FEI President Princess Haya said, ”The [International Olympic Committee] has very reasonable and legitimate concerns about eventing safety and the way the Dressage Committee is working. It could also be the end of show jumping as an Olympic sport, as they are unlikely to leave it on its own.” She added about eventing, ”Walking away and saying, ‘thank God nobody died,’ isn’t good enough.”
Four basic issues are usually offered as reasons to oust equestrian sports from the Olympic roster. The first is the cost of building the venue, a major criticism of the 2004 Athens games, where they built two brand-new stadiums and barns that have barely been used since. Cost is also one criticism of the London 2012 plan, where they’re going to temporarily transform the historic park in Greenwich, despite numerous other suitable locations. Well, every Olympic venue costs money.
The second issue, especially in Athens and Hong Kong, is equine doping violations. Well, the real problem here is that the FEI has an absolutely ridiculous no-drugs-at-all policy that prevents riders from treating their horses as athletes, while the drug testing becomes ever more sophisticated. (Do you think Michael Phelps or Shawn Johnson never take Tylenol or have topical muscle creams smoothed over them’) This is an FEI problem, not an Olympic problem, and one they’re unlikely to solve.
Third is safety, and it’s a bunch of road apples. Numerous Olympic sports are extreme sports where contestants can get hurt or killed. The thrill is why people do them and watch them.
And the fourth issue is judging dressage. Opponents say that subjective sports don’t belong in the Olympics, but what about gymnastics, diving and ice skating’ Yes, international dressage judging has serious issues that FEI leaders are ignoring, and they get magnified at the Olympics.
Honestly, staying in the Olympics may not be worth the negative attention. The limelight and being part of the ”Olympic ideal” may not outweigh the costs to us as horsemen, especially when they’re in unsuitable places and in the heat and humidity of July and August.
Maybe that’s what Princess Haya thinks, too. Informed people I’ve spoken to suspect she has a plan behind these remarks, a plan she hasn’t formally communicated to national federation leaders. Maybe she’s decided that our horse sports could better solve their challenges if they weren’t illuminated by the Olympic torch. And maybe she’s right.