There are sound reasons for people to make a personal decision not to compete at these particular Olympic Games. One is the Covid-19 pandemic, for both health and ethical arguments. That is why Eric Lamaze withdrew from individual contention in mid-May. It is also why another former Olympic jumping champion, Steve Guerdat, bared his soul to AFP news about the moral maze and the perceived arrogance of athletes “strutting around” with medals when other people cannot obtain vaccines.
The other justifiable reason is concern about the very hot weather and humidity expected in Tokyo, which has led to an unprecedented educational campaign about avoiding heat stress.
None of those reasons seem to trouble Ireland. They are sending strong squads of jumpers and eventers, as usual. But they are not taking up the first team opportunity in Olympic dressage for the most horse-orientated nation on the planet ‒ simply because their performance director Jo Hinneman thinks his riders are not up to it.
It’s been four days since Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) announced this bombshell in one of those awkward press releases that tries to bury bad news underneath another topic. This side of the pond, we remain baffled.
Three of the top Irish contenders ‒ Judy Reynolds, Kate Dwyer and Anna Merveldt ‒ have dropped out for various reasons, but others are qualified and wishing to go. They were, after all, deemed competent to join Ireland’s high performance squad in the first place.
“The HSI are not only killing the dreams of these riders but of a whole generation who will now think if they are not first string they will not be considered.”
State (i.e. taxpayer) funding for elite horse sport is the norm in most leading nations nowadays. I’m not sure it’s primarily intended to provide handsome salaries for part-time coaches who consider failure an option before their riders even get to the event. Future state funding usually depends on Olympic results, so it will be interesting how this pans out between HSI and Sport Ireland.
Hinneman reportedly required his riders to achieve a minimum Grand Prix score of 68% (2% more than the official Olympic Minimum Eligibility Requirement, aka the MER). At the risk of stating the obvious, 68% is not going to win a medal or make the difference between pride or ignominy any more than would a score of 66%.
It’s curious why this Irish-specific criteria has been slavishly observed in these trying times. Someone has got to be last, after all. Even with Carl Hester riding in them, British Olympic dressage teams routinely finished nearer the bottom than the top, until 2008….
Decisions like this burst the balloon not just for the Irish, but for anyone with ambitions for Paris 2024 and beyond. Riders Dane Rawlins and James Connor have been granted an appeal hearing after the weekend. As Rawlins says: “The HSI are not only killing the dreams of these riders but of a whole generation who will now think if they are not first string they will not be considered.”
Elite equestrianism reluctantly accepted radical change to the Olympic formats at Tokyo to enable more countries to be represented, to encourage the IOC to keep horse sport in the family, so it’s especially sad that a privileged equestrian nation has handed its place back for reasons that look plain churlish. Other countries with fewer resources have moved mountains to enable even a single rider to achieve eligibility.
Two years has always been a long time to maintain your form, plus a sound horse, between qualifying and the event actually taking place. Because of Covid it’s been a record year for people making the best of fleeting opportunities days before the June 21 MER deadline. Their passion and endeavour put the defeatist HSI in the shade.
Second reserve Belgium has been given Ireland’s team place and will field a full dressage team for the first time since 1928. Belgium had enough qualified riders to do this at short notice, unlike Luxembourg, the first reserve. That Luxembourg has not enough people is scarcely a surprise ‒ the country is so small you can drive across it in under an hour. Kudos to the squad who achieved Luxembourg’s team qualification at the 2019 European championships. Luxembourg will still send a dressage individual to the Olympics.
New Zealand announced in early June that it wouldn’t send individuals in dressage or para, while being well-represented in eventing and jumping. Like Ireland, New Zealand wanted dressage riders to show a better Grand Prix performance than 66%. The big difference here, though, was that with border closures and no CDIs in the southern hemisphere for over a year, it was a physically impossible “ask.”
Malaysia should have taken New Zealand’s dressage individual place, but only has one active rider, Qabil Ambak, six-time medallist at the Asian Games. He had comfortably achieved his MERs in good company at European shows by December 2019, then left his horse in Denmark when returning home at the start of the pandemic. Learning in early June that he might take New Zealand’s place, Ambak flew to Le Mans in France on June 18 seeking the compulsory “confirmation result” because ‒ unavoidably ‒ he has no current form. Alas, divorced from his horse for 18 months, he scored just 64%.
New Zealand’s place has now passed to second reserve from the far eastern group, Singapore’s sole active Grand Prix rider Caroline Chew. She is based in the UK and also made the 11th-hour trip to last weekend’s CDI in Le Mans.
Dina Ellermann, who has ridden at the WEG, three European championships and is arguably more experienced than others on the “second reserve” waitlist, gets a late call-up for Estonia. In the eastern Europe allocation, Belarus and Slovakia were ahead of Estonia, but had no eligible riders.
Another rider thwarted by timing is Annabelle Collins of Bermuda. In Le Mans she failed to achieve a second requisite MER by 0.4% on Chuppy Checker CL. Her top string Joyero VG, who should have started had Tokyo run last year, is recovering from injury.
Venezuela was next in line for Bermuda’s place, but has no eligible rider, so second reserve Chile gets the call up, fielding Virginia Yarur.
Norway’s Ellen Birgitte Farbrot withdrew her entitlement, believing Tailormade Red Rebel is too new to Grand Prix. She won Norway’s individual slot with results from another horse in 2019. Italy, from southern Europe, has been given her ticket because there were insufficient nations in north-west Europe to fill that region’s reserve list in the first place. Most of northern Europe, not surprisingly, is already through to the Olympics with a full dressage team.
The FEI might need to tweak its weighting of regional rider quotas before Paris 2024 because a few “smaller” nations don’t have active riders, period. However, the nominated entry lists overall suggests that Tokyo will not be undersubscribed, that the balance of nations under the new system was well assessed, and that it is only in dressage that places have had to be reallocated (dressage here, jumping here, eventing here.)
Bonne chance to all at a Games like no other. It’s already been quite a ride!