It is hard to think of any other pastime that promotes moderate-achievement the way equestrianism does.
Noone with Grade 8 oboe expects to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. The tennis pro at your local club does not expect to play in the US Open. Not so in equestrianism, where people of average achievement can become ‘international athletes’ at a stroke of a pen.
Of course, the world loves the indefatigable trier; when you are far from expert, having-a-go is inspiring for the watchers and character-building for the doer. That’s why we loved the Jamaican bobsleigh team and Eric “the Eel” Mousammbani, the swimmer who was still doing his laps – well almost – when the winners were collecting their medals. Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, Britain’s excruciatingly hopeless ski-jumper, and Florence Foster Jenkins, the tone-deaf opera singer, have even found themselves played by Hollywood A-listers in blockbuster films.
Equestrianism shows this generosity of spirit, too, but the line between taking part and aspiring to excellence has been fudged over the years. Most importantly, equestrianism has a responsibility to restrain itself, because we are the only pastime that involves another sentient being with no choice in the matter.
When riders strive beyond their comfort zone, the worst they can suffer is embarrassment (apart from injury, a risk one hopes they assessed and took steps to mitigate in advance.) Hopefully it’s a wake-up call to seek out a better coach, or to drop a level or three. No wonder that when riders are sampled under the anti-doping program, so many positives are for confidence-boosting stimulants; that is one consequence of equestrian sport being promoted as a “lifestyle” rather than the competitive endeavour of genuinely talented athlete.
Most of the time, we resign ourselves to the fact that some of our ever forgiving horses had an uncomfortable time in the arena when their riders were not really up to it. Hopefully, we tell ourselves, rules and regulations protect the horse’s welfare, and for 22 hours of the day at least he’s having a nice time in his paddock or stable.
And of course every four years issues about competence come to a head with the scramble to get a place at the Olympic Games. Tokyo has been no exception, given the extra opportunities opened to new countries by the unpopular format changes.
When the changes for 2020 were first debated years ago at a FEI sports forum in Lausanne, the aim was to see 55 different national flags flying over the Tokyo horse park. The optimum mathematical solution seemed to be limiting teams to three with no drop score and limiting individuals to one per country when previously it was two.
At that forum, the Turkish delegate pondered aloud whether there actually were 55 countries anywhere in the world with riders of Olympic capability. That was a very pertinent question. According to my count-up today, 52 countries in all have made the cut, in terms of fielding at least one team or individual across the three disciplines.
Fifty-something countries is a decent step-up from the 40 at Rio. But then again, there were 97 team and individual opportunities at Tokyo for 134 national federations not including the host country, Japan, had the FEI had enough participating countries. The truth is there are just not enough countries with even one or two riders successful in upper level equestrian sport.
Qualifying and rider quotas for Tokyo varied between the disciplines. A computer could never have devised the best way to maximise flags – that immensely nuanced process had to be thought through by people who understand the strengths and depths of activity in their own sports, region by region.
It has always been the case that some riders will get a shoe-in through being the last-man-standing in their regional group.
In team dressage, South Africa was the only contender at its regional qualifier. Canada has had zero opposition from the rest of the Americas for its individual eventing place – most others had got in via the team route. (I guess there is some convoluted process to award the “spare” place left by the Americas to the next eligible country on the overall eventing list. That looks to me like Lithuania – bringing the overall number of countries across all horse sports to 53.)
Does athletics allow a sprinter to qualify in a 90m race instead of 100m, when his country that is fairly new to track and field? No.
But equestrianism historically has allowed its developing regions to qualify in competitions that are not the same standard as the Olympic test. We’ve seen a couple of jumping teams get through with far from creditable Nations Cup scores of 50-plus. In the past week a new scandal has arisen about three individuals who qualified their countries largely at CSI 2* level, against almost zero opposition.
Inevitability, some team places have already been handed back – in dressage by South Africa and Brazil and in jumping by Ukraine. Those three countries simply could not achieve the second part of the equation, a personal achievement-based Minimum Eligibility Requirement (MER) by a mere three riders.
I can’t pretend I look forward to watching some of the Olympic debutants ride the Tokyo cross-country. As we know from 2008 Beijing/Hong Kong, the intensity of jumping effort over an eight-minute eventing track will require even Michael Jung, Tim Price and Pippa Funnel to dig deep into their experience-bank. I salute but worry for all those for whom a shortened long-format 4* is their first championship of any sort…
I don’t underestimate the boost it gives any country to send a rider to the Olympics but the down-side is an increased likelihood of what the FEI calls “bad pictures” – over-faced horses and riders who unintentionally become poor advertisements for our sports.
Last week the FEI hinted it was expecting further changes to the countries finally through to Tokyo, so the final array of national flags is far from clear. Some countries who only just scraped in with their MERs must still be evaluating if they will have three sound horses by the summer; it might be pragmatic to forfeit their team place right now and opt to send an individual instead.
Many stakeholders wearily accepted the Olympic 2020 changes because they would help globalise our sports. I am a glass half-empty sort of person, so while I hope all these changes prove worth it, my instinct says they won’t.
If further countries drop-out, are enough capable people even left to fill the gaps? In eventing, all but four of the countries who have any FEI eventing riders at all have already qualified.
By trying too hard to involve more countries, could we end up with fewer starters on the day? Maybe the tried and tested concept of four riders in a team wasn’t so exclusive after all.
Here are the countries who appear to have qualified teams and/or individuals at the time of writing (January 23.) There is no official list yet, so if I have missed one by mistake, let me know! This may change subject to qualified teams or individuals relinquishing their places; any decision to disqualify Qatar from the jumping after two of its rider failed a dope test; and any review of the allocations to Sri Lanka, Syria and Jordan.
Host nation: Japan.
Countries qualifying teams in all three disciplines: USA, Germany, Great Britain, France, Ireland, Sweden and Australia
Countries qualifying teams and individuals in one or two disciplines: Canada, Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Portugal, Russia, Austria, New Zealand, Italy, Poland, Brazil, China, Thailand, Switzerland, Belgium, Egypt, Czech Republic, Israel, Mexico, Argentina, Qatar.
Countries qualifying individuals only in one or more disciplines:
Finland, Norway, Luxembourg, Ukraine, Belarussia, Dominican Republic, Bermuda, South Africa, Morocco, South Korea, Latvia, Syria, Jordan, Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Chile, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, India, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Kazakhstan.