Olympic sports are always on a world stage, and this year more than ever, the eventing competition needed to be a success. Preparing a cross-country course of Olympic proportions in an environment where the weather could all too easily have been disastrous, as well as allowing for nations of various skills and abilities, was a massive undertaking that came off amazingly well.
One of the decisions made in the interest of safety, however, turned out to be a controversial one—the shortening of the course to 8 minutes without informing competitors or trainers in advance. The rules stipulate that the course could be 5,700 meters, but officials decided to reduce it, and it turned out to be 4,650 meters. Although the course was shorter, the number of jumping efforts and degree of difficulty was the same, if not harder—the rules dictate that it must be run at 570 mpm, which made for an impossible optimum time over a short, twisty track with a jumping effort every 110 meters.
The good news is that the course played an important role in determining the winners, unlike the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which was widely regarded as not challenging enough. Still, riders and coaches had the right to know the proper course dimensions before the competition began. For many teams, including the United States, according to Chef d’Equipe Capt. Mark Phillips, this difference would have affected selection of horses and training before the Games.
Why was the decision kept secret? Chris Hodson, Fédération Equestre Internationale vice president, suggested that officials wanted to ensure that all horses were fit and prepared. There were concerns that some horses at the 2007 European Championships (Italy) and at the 2007 test event in Hong Kong were not fit enough, and on a sweltering day in Hong Kong, that could spell serious trouble.
“There was no concept of hiding information for the sake of doing so,” said Hodson’s press release. “The decision not to tell was based on the TD’s view of what was in the best interests of securing a successful competition and of the good of the sport…on this occasion the interests of the sport were placed ahead of detailed preparation of the athletes. The light of hindsight shows that on this occasion the competitors rose above the concerns, not to say the fears, of the organizers.”
This means to the end must be corrected in the future, but so much else about the day worked, whether due to preparation of the facilities, fitness of the horses, perfect weather, sensible riding, or a little bit of luck.
Mike Etherington-Smith’s course ensured the winners were true Olympic champions while getting less experienced riders home safely. Even the best in the world know how rare it is to pull off a top performance on the most important weekend of their lives, and individual gold medalist Hinrich Romeike, with his genuine joy, deep respect for his horse and sense of humor, won over everyone watching him just as clearly as he won the gold medal.
As much as I wanted to see Gina Miles win for the United States, it was impossible to wish any bad luck on Germany’s Romeike. He’s a fabulous, unassuming rider whose love and faith in his phenomenal horse can be appreciated in any language. And that’s what the Olympic Games are really about.
Beth Rasin, Managing Editor