Even before the competitions begin in Tokyo, flaws in the new “alternate” rider system have been highlighted by two huge names dropping out because they and/or their owners do not wish to be the “fourth man.”
Earlier this week Team GB announced that Piggy March (winner of Badminton 2019 and world ranked number 3) would not now travel to Tokyo with the British eventing team. Brookfield Innocent’s connections do not wish him to go through the long journey and quarantine in order not to start. Even if he did start, not all of his three owners could have attended because of accreditation and Covid mitigation constraints. They’d rather save him for another big occasion which is more horse and supporter-friendly. And who can blame them?
Two weeks ago Australian show jumper Rowan Willis made a similar decision about his beloved “Carrots,” aka Blue Movie, having been advised there was no “tactical” likelihood of his being started. This has inadvertently left Australia without a viable jumping team. Today (July 21) Jamie Kermond – whose horse is already in Tokyo – has been suspended, having tested positive for the banned substance cocaine on June 26. The Australian jumping contingent is down to two, Edwina Tops-Alexander and Katie Laurie.
In 2017 the FEI approved changes to the Olympic formula to allow riders from more countries to be represented, within the overall cap of 200 horses across the three disciplines. This was achieved by reducing teams from four to three riders, but with no drop score.
Given the nature of equestrian sport, there is a fair chance that a team horse won’t make it through to the very end of the competition – hence the tried-and-tested four to a team plus drop score (in fact, five to a team for the eventing at London 2012 and Rio 2016.) That system remains for every other type of team championship.
To avoid too many of the new look teams in Tokyo losing a horse and so not providing a finishing score, the solution was to travel an alternate, fourth rider/horse combination who could be parachuted in after the start if something went wrong. This is, of course, utter anathema. It changes the dynamic of eventing in particular – so much that it’s even worthy of a university thesis. But riders resigned themselves to the change, understanding that otherwise equestrian would be out of future Games.
Piggy March posts a regular video diary on Facebook. Her candid, tearful discussion of this week’s bombshell is painful to watch. She describes how she is simultaneously 100% behind her owners’ decision, yet wanting to scream, shout and bang her head against the wall.
Initially Britain named its eventing riders for Tokyo without putting them in any order. For weeks Piggy secretly braced herself for the fall-out if she was eventually named the number four. This put her under a lot of needless extra stress and she regrets if she appeared less than friendly to fans who came up to congratulate her at recent competitions in the UK.
Eventers are used to serious setbacks. The ability to bounce back is what draws people of enviable personal qualities to that discipline. However, I don’t think I’m alone in finding it reprehensible that the inherent stoicism of our top class eventers has ended up so cynically exploited.
Team GB did at least manage to call in another fourth man – Ros Canter, the reigning world champion – in time. Not so Australia, whose selection process for jumping has been contentious for different reasons.
Willis, 12th at WEG 2018 with Blue Movie, world ranked 63 and with many recent top-10 placings in the US, was demoted to number four. Kermond, by contrast, was selected for the core Aussie trio despite having only half a dozen international starts since WEG 2018 and being world ranked 1,013. It is alleged that one of the mere two selectors had commercial links to Kermond, even though he recused himself from considering him.
This has all come out in a national newspaper, The Australian, which has seen correspondence between Equestrian Australia (EA) and the Australian Institute of Sport about conflict of interest concerns. No wonder Willis feels ill-used.
Willis’s withdrawal and now Kermond’s cocaine embarrassment – which Kermond freely admits to deliberately ingesting – is just one more setback for EA. It is already the most beleaguered equestrian federation on the planet. Now, we can add failure to properly supervise its elite riders to its list of shortcomings. However, the predicament of the Aussie jumpers in Tokyo cannot be said to be wholly of EA’s own making.
Yes, the Olympics has always been about the best each country can offer, not the best of the best. In strong equestrian countries, riders of medal potential have always had to stay behind and watch on TV, no doubt further depressed by the crashing and burning of other participants unused to jumping much above 2* or 3*.
Of course, we must grow the sport worldwide. Offering the Olympic dream to emerging countries is a big part of that. There’s a difficult balance between providing those opportunities and not promoting mediocrity at the expense of excellence.
But did whoever drew up this cockamamie substitute system truly think it through? It’s potentially undermining for jumping, but the impacts are so much worse for eventing. The FEI seems to find eventing less worthy of its full attention than dressage and jumping even in normal times. If the eventers had as strong a voice as the jumpers, or brought as many billions into the industry, I wonder if this alternate rider formula could have been headed off at the pass?
Piggy points out if Brookfield Innocent were to have come in “cold” for the final jumping phase, it might all have gone pear-shaped anyway. Show jumping is not their strongest suit, even less so when not fired up after cross-country. They won’t be the only ones who thrive on the whole three-day experience.
We Brits are still smarting from England’s ignominious European championship soccer defeat 10 days ago. The final was decided by a disastrous penalty shoot-out involving two players pulled off the substitutes bench solely for that purpose. One of them was so “cold,” having sat out the actual match, that he missed the net. Its not even as if he gave a good shot, but the goalkeeper saved it. I can’t help but worry this is exactly where Olympic equestrianism is headed next week.