The Olympic Dream is under threat. This pinnacle of sporting achievement is a global measure, one that every high-performance athlete aspires to and one which is understood by the public at large whether or not they have any knowledge of the particular sport you may be obsessive about. I still get the biggest reaction when people learn that I was part of a group of riders that secured a team spot for Dressage New Zealand for the first time ever at the Olympic selection trials for the London 2012 games, despite the fact that I have many other accomplishments that I am far more proud of than my performance at that competition. As far-fetched as it may seem in the position I am in right now, I still have this goal in my heart – to canter down the centreline under the Olympic rings.
Last month Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) announced their nomination criteria for the Tokyo Olympics. The Minimum Eligibility Score set by the FEI for a Certificate of Competency to compete in Tokyo is two scores of 66%. ESNZ have declared that in order to attain nomination a combination must attain four scores above 71%, with the two highest of these scores averaging 73%. To put this into context, the current New Zealand record for a technical test stands at 71.22%, having been achieved by Wendi Williamson and Déjà vu MH. New Zealand’s closest neighbours, the Australians, would also not be sending an athlete under this criteria. Their record has just been set last weekend by Kristy Oatley, her score of 73.913% passed the previous Australian record of 72.8% set by her cousin, Lyndal, back in 2015. This criteria would also mean that British senior riders Emile Faurie, Richard Davison, Lara Butler and Hayley Watson-Greaves would be left at home. Emile was on the Bronze medal winning team at WEG in Tryon, while Lara was reserve both there and at the Rio Olympics where they won silver. Both Richard & Hayley have been on Nations Cups teams.
I know that the reasons for having the scores set so high hark back to a declared intention laid out by the New Zealand 0lympic Committee which states any athlete sent to the Olympics should be capable of a top 16 individual finish. However it is my view that this policy is incredibly shortsighted. The only way to increase performance in any given arena is to participate. Every rider that I speak to that has had the opportunity to ride at the Olympics says that it is a show like no other. As evidenced by the fact that no one performs at their best at their first Olympics, waiting until they are good enough to be in the top 16 ensures that they never will be. We need horses and riders gaining mileage and experience. An example of just how valuable experience is has been shown by the New Zealand show jumping team when they took out their first ever Nations Cup win in Abu Dhabi, UAE last year.
The team selected for that competition included 3 riders who were undoubtedly performing well at the highest level, however the fourth rider was Bruce Goodin, who didn’t have an international horse in his string at that time. He borrowed a horse and was included simply on the strength of his experience, having competed at 4 Olympic Games to date. Despite being the discard score, his teammates described him as ‘their rock’ and said that they could not have achieved what they achieved without his being present. This incredible result means that for the first time since 1992 New Zealand is likely to be represented at next years Olympics by a full showjumping team.
Another factor to consider regarding the value of attending an Olympic event is the mighty dollar. Equestrian sports are one of the most expensive pursuits around – ocean sailing and motor racing pretty much being the only other sports that require more outlay. We need to attract sponsors and unless we are going to rely on the very small pool of wealthy individuals who have more than a passing interest in horses, we need to be providing incentives that the general public understand. We have a distinct advantage in equestrian sports. It’s one thing to be able to use an athlete in advertising, or provide a racquet or a pair of shoes. It’s altogether another thing for an individual or a corporation to be able to say that they own an Olympic competitor and be provided with all the benefits of being an accredited owner at the pinnacle of athletic endeavor. If this opportunity is realistically never on the table, we’re never going to attract the financial support we need.
Contrast the New Zealand philosophy with that of some of the Asian and Arab nations, and you can see how the emphasis on participation has very quickly leapfrogged them into a world ranking position. I am fortunate enough to be friends with many of these up-and-coming riders from up-and-coming nations. Riders from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan are enjoying a rise and rise in profile and performance. By allowing one Hong Kong rider to compete in Tryon and aim for Tokyo next year, they have secured sponsorship that provided her with a world class horse. Jackie rewarded this investment with a gold medal at the Asian Games, Hong Kong’s first equestrian medal at this level. Qatar’s decision to allow their riders to compete in any championship event they qualified in resulted in a 6th place ride in the showjumping arena in Rio.
I am not for one minute recommending that we send a team of all comers. I do believe we need to send people who are capable of putting in a solid performance on the world stage, people and horses who are not going to be overwhelmed by the event. But I do think that the only way to springboard us to the big time is to give us a platform to jump from. In the meantime, I wonder where I put that Korean birth certificate…
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