Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Swiss Land ‘Final’ Tokyo Slot, But Team Chances Still Out There

Despite all the format manipulation aimed at admitting new countries, Olympic hopefuls in eventing still have to meet the Minimum Eligibility Requirement.

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By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Switzerland claimed the last Olympic team place for 2020 at the FEI eventing Nations Cup final at Boekelo in the Netherlands October 13th. Their squad has been coached since the winter by Andrew Nicholson and it certainly shows. They finished best of the teams in the overall Nations Cup rankings not already bound for Tokyo.

The Tokyo factor added an extra frisson to Boekelo’s traditionally lively end-of-season party. But Boekelo might not quite be the Tokyo last-chance, because “qualification” has a strange interpretation in equestrianism. You can be qualified AND ineligible simultaneously.

Despite all the format manipulation aimed at admitting new countries, Olympic hopefuls still have to meet the Minimum Eligibility Requirement (MER) before occupying the place they have supposedly clinched. And the MER deadline for the team contest – a minimum three riders of prescribed competence – is approaching like an express train: December 31st.

For newbies China and Thailand, it’s a case of so near and yet so far! Those two countries won their region’s quota place at a special competition in Saumur, France in May, amid much fanfare from the FEI. But the competition was staged at the old two-star/new three-star level. Rather less public attention was drawn to enormous “ask” of now mastering the next level up in a matter of months: the MER requires one completion including a cross-country clear, at the new five-star long format, or two at the new four-star, a long and a short.

While I may have missed something on the FEI database, it looks like two Chinese eventers have obtained the MER so far, the experienced Alex Hua Tian who ran as an individual at Beijing 2008, and Liang Riuji. Thailand has just one, Weerapat Pitakanonda – both he and Liang secured their MERs in under five weeks at their first four-star attempts in Europe this summer and, it has to be said, did so fairly comfortably. China has a further three riders half-way there with four-star short qualifications, and Thailand one.

There are 13 remaining opportunities to obtain Olympic MERs worldwide, largely at events in the Americas and Antipodes. Riders are now prohibited from chasing MERs within 24 days of starting a “Long” CCI cross-country or within 10 days of a “Short.” That is a new stipulation, preventing horses being over-run at last-minute competitions which have had a strange way of appearing in the calendar before previous Games.

But can China and Thailand, in all seriousness, achieve this? And if so, given the precarious nature of eventing, can they feasibly keep four horses fit and well to start in Tokyo from such a minute pool of participants? China has invested all its effort in the pre-selected six based in Europe this year.

So at least one team place is likely to be back in the pot soon. Who benefits will be decided by the special Olympic rankings table – most likely northern European. The FEI will reallocate if needed by February 17th. Canada is maybe just a notch too far down this list. However, the top two competitors from the Group D Olympic Eventing ranking list will be invited to compete. The list is currently topped by Karl Slezak and Colleen Loach, but Holy Jacks-Smither is on her way to Les Etoiles de Pau CCI5*-L in hopes of improving her ranking.

The FEI’s Far Eastern push is a gamble, even a cosmetic exercise with the consequence of messing with experienced countries’ whose heritage in eventing is no less valid. Many Europeans are currently obsessing about their special Olympic rankings points which could yet secure an individual place and/or enable their country to field a “composite team” if China or Thailand don’t make it.

I chatted about this with Alex Hua Tian, who seems pretty sanguine about China’s prospects for 2020 and looks at the long-term. The mere possibility of a team presence has, he says, already piqued interest at national level, and if they don’t make Tokyo, the European experience has stood China’s embryo team in good stead for a crack at Paris 2024. He also reminded me that it took Japan (third in the Boekelo Nations Cup final) two Olympic cycles to develop the strength and depth to be competitive in time for 2020. Given the chance, other non-traditional nations can catch up quickly and see off some of well aired concerns about dilution of quality.

Meanwhile, Boekelo’s customised version of the Olympic three riders/no drop-score system was unexpectedly entertaining. At least it seemed so to me compared with last year’s trials of the new Olympic format at Millstreet (Ireland) and Strzegom (Poland;) they were so bewildering I thought my head would fall off.

The Boekelo teams all seemed determined to complete their original trio. But I still harbour fears that someone who has been a spectator for half the competition will end up mounting the team podium next year. We saw how real that possibility could be at Boekelo when New Zealand finished fourth out of 12 good squads, despite calling up their substitute after the dressage, having accepted 20 extra penalty points.

The US finished eighth, taking an automatic 200 cross-country penalty when Jennie Brannigan incurred a rider fall from Stella Artois at fence 16, a double of corners. As US reserve pair Matt Flynn and Wizzerd could not be substituted except for a medical or veterinary reason, Jennie turned out again on Sunday for the stadium and jumped clean.

Jennie, of course she is still shown as a non-completion on the individuals’ scoreboard, just the kind of contradiction that will make casual observers glaze over when watching Tokyo in TV. Diehard fans have been digesting the substitution formula for months, but still probably watched Boekelo with one eye on the “bluffers guides” thoughtfully published by Horse & Hound and Eventing Nation.

Even the FEI’s own press release about Boekelo says the scoring caused a lot of head-scratching! The Boekelo commentators certainly had difficulty trying to distil it to a few words – good luck explaining it on Twitter next year!