Five Days Till Tokyo Games. Will Covid Intervene?
It’s all go for the Olympic Games which start in five days time. We take a quick look at what we might expect for the equestrian participants. As usual, there are three different equine disciplines, dressage, show jumping and horse trial eventing. This is the second time that The Olympic Games have been held in Tokyo, the first being in 1964. We all hope that Covid will not now intervene although eight athletes are already in isolation!
Before the games have even started, they will go down in history for several reasons. The first is how they games had to be postponed for a year to accommodate the world wide pandemic of corona virus. There are still many who believe that the games should have been cancelled right from the start rather than trying to re-stage at a later date. Secondly, it will be the first games ever held, (and we hope the last) behind closed doors. As we write, the pandemic in Japan and particularly Tokyo is rife with few in Japan protected by the any of the various vaccines available, and this has led to enormous criticism by the Japanese themselves that the games are still going ahead anyway. Thirdly, many of the riders, particularly from the German band of show jumpers have questioned the wisdom of staging the games at all, and have declared themselves unavailable for Japan. Fourthly, not only have there been difficulties with human health, but ever since the early part of March, European based horses have had to wrestle with EVA in horses, a respiratory decease which unless treated can easily kill a horse and its very contagious. Rather like covid 19 really!!! So all in all, not an auspicious start?
Equestrian competition has been part of the modern Olympic Games since 1912. Numbers of competitors and countries participating have risen constantly throughout the intervening time with this year, no fewer than fifty nations will be represented with over two hundred horses and a further seventy five horses in reserve. In all three disciplines, the numbers of riders has increased from the last Olympics held in Rio in 2016. The numbers of dressage riders have jumped from 25 to 30 different nationalities competing with 15 national teams from 11 in Rio. Show jumping is similar with numbers up from 27 national in 2016 to 42 this time with another 5 teams. In eventing again the numbers are up from 13 national teams in Rio to 15 and representatives from a further 4 countries will be there – up from 25 to 29. While all these stats may seem rather ‘nerdy’, it does show that world equine sport participation is in the ‘rudeness of health’ which must be good for all involved within the industry.
All the sports will be held in the Baji Koen Equestrian Park, owned by the Japanese Racing Association, (the same venue as the dressage in 1964) with the cross country course designed and built by Derek di Grazia from the United States. The scenery behind the cross country fences should be splendid as the Bay of Tokyo is to be the back drop with the city behind. The show jumping courses will be designed and built by Santiago Varela from Spain.
As for the equestrian competitions themselves – the team elements have changed for the first time. In all the team disciplines previously, each team would have four riders representing their country, and the worst team member of the four would be disregarded.
This year for the first time, there will only be three members per team and all the scores will count. The idea behind this move by the FEI is to eliminate the thoughts of each team member that if they should ‘mess up’, their team could still do well as their score would be dropped. Now if a team member ‘fouls up’, their score will count and it will matter. The second reason for this is to encourage more teams to join in the fun. Some of the less well established countries, with regard to equine sports anyway, have not in the past, been able to muster more than three for their respective team. This has discouraged that country to put forward a team, leaving the way clear for the more advanced countries to cruise through to success.
So who will end up as the Olympian Victors? Well, with the new system for the team events, there will be some surprises. In dressage, there will be 60 horse/athlete combinations with 15 teams from 30 countries in the mix. The current dressage team holder is Germany, and again they have such a strong team, it is likely that they will retain their Gold status. Other than that, any predictions could be a forlorn exercise? The current dressage individual Gold holder is Charlotte Dujardin from Great Britain, but she is riding a different horse this time – Gio – a horse which will certainly go places, but will he be too inexperienced for the big one this time around? Germany’s Isabel Werth rides Bella Rosa and has considerable more international exposure than Gio. Don’t discount the other German dressage riders either, all brilliant riders with fantastic horses to boot! Jessica Bredow-von Werndl riding Dalara BB is certainly no slouch and Dorothee Schneider riding Showtime FRH could give them all a surprise?
So we think the team dressage gold will go to Germany and quite possibly the individual as well, but Charlotte Dujardin could give them a nasty surprise as well as any of The Dutch riders who seem to be in the ascendancy at the moment. Riders from the United States always seem to find something at any Olympics and this year will be no exception, but we cannot see them filling any of the medal places this time round, although they will do well and there’s no doubt about that.
The holders of the team Gold showjumping medal from Rio are France. Ever since then, the French riders have been inconsistent in their international performances. They do have a knack however, of ‘turning up’ just at the right time – so to rule them out completely could be a mistake? The current individual Gold medal holder is Nick Skelton from Great Britain. He certainly will not be winning again. Both he and Big Star have retired. However, one of the most consistent and successful combinations currently are Ben Maher, a fellow Brit with his extraordinary steed – Explosion W.
The Swiss could provide the winners, they do have Steve Guerdat and Martin Fuchs on experienced horses, and they have been either number one or two in the world for what seems like years, although Germany’s Daniel Deusser is current number one and he is competing unlike some of his German peers who have mysteriously become unavailable in recent weeks? So both the team and individual medal line up at the end of the show could be very surprising, particularly with the new team format introduced this time around. The showjumping discipline has the biggest number of combinations with 75 horse/athletes from 35 countries with 20 of them providing a team.
The horse trial eventing calendar around the world during the pandemic has been cruelly decimated which has meant that many have been unable to hone their skills and keep their horses properly fit for competition. Having said that, there is always keen competition and this Olympics will be no different. France are the current holders of the team Gold medal, like with the showjumping, they turned up in Rio, which cannot always be said of the French!
Michael Jung of Germany is the current individual Gold medallist. This year there are 60 horse/athlete combinations from 29 countries with 15 supplying teams and like most Olympic Games, there are several countries who could take the honours over the three star Olympic cross country course. New Zealand as is normal, look strong with Tim and Jonella Price. Australia, also with the likes of Christopher Burton and others will have their eye on the ball. Both countries have good riders and horses, with many for the selectors to choose from. Germany, of course must be considered as they too have a plethora of good combinations, although Ingrid Klimke, who would have been in their team had a very nasty fall about six weeks ago and is unfit. Michael Jung will no doubt be the anchor man for the team and he might well regain his Gold medal? Great Britain also has to be considered, after all, the current world number one Oliver Townend is in the mix once again. Will France retain their team gold? Not impossible, but their riders have not been so prominent since Rio, so there hopes seem less likely. The truth is that this is an open competition and anyone of the above countries could take Gold.
Whatever the final results are for all the Olympic disciplines, the games will be almost certainly be reviewed as ‘rather surreal’. With no spectators and empty stadiums, these Games may well be looked back on as ‘The Ghost Olympics?