Our columnist recalls her Olympic experiences and discusses the pros and cons of equestrian sports in the Games.
Now that the dust has settled from the Olympic preparations and the Games have concluded, we have a brief period of “R&R” and a year to regroup before the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, which we hope will be a great bonus for all equestrian disciplines in this country.
The Olympic Games seem to me to come upon us quicker each time. When you’ve been involved for many years with the committee work that irons out the selection procedures, they sort of blend together.
The work we’ve done on these committees has become increasingly more complicated as each time we create a format that will be totally fair to the athletes trying out and also satisfies the legal departments of the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
You would think that you could simply use the old formula and keep marching, but things change in the Olympic Games rules for the sport, the venues (except that they’re always too hot) and the safety issues. Veterinary and quarantine requirements vary. So, except for the basic premise, we have to reinvent at least some of the wheel each time.
Often we find when the Games are over—and we’re equipped with 20/20 hindsight—that there are things we need to improve on. So the work starts all over again.
An Olympic Games Evolution
Looking back with some nostalgia, I remember the first time I was close to the action at the Olympic Games. It was in Montreal in 1976 when we had Col. Bengt Ljungquist as our U.S. coach. There were three women who had qualified on our team—Hilda Gurney, Dorothy Morkis and Edith Master—and one man, John Winnet. Like this year, only three could ride.
At that time, choosing the three riders was up to the coach. I was close with Bengt, and he shared with me the agony of having to make this choice, since John was his friend and the only “guy” candidate. Bengt knew his players, however, and he knew those women were tough competitors with strong nerves who could hold up their end whether they went first or last. That, in the end, was why Bengt decided to keep the “girls” on and leave John as the alternate.
It wasn’t easy for him to tell his friend about the decision, but it proved to be the right one when the United States earned their first dressage bronze medal in modern times. That scenario would never have sold today, when the selections are strictly “by the book”, and the coach has limited input in the final selections.
I remember another situation in Canada that’s also not likely to ever happen again. We were a group from New York who had rented a camper, and we parked it next door to the horse park. Every day we simply walked over to watch the schooling, and there was little concern about security in the parking area or at the stables.
In Montreal, Granat, the Swiss horse ridden by Christina Stuckelberger, was the one to watch, and he certainly made it worthwhile. The barn was situated high on a hill, and the training area was below. Granat came out at least three times a day, and one of those times the giant bay was halfway down the slope when he spied Georg Wahl, the trainer, standing in the ring. Granat did a 180 and bolted back up the hill to the barn with his tiny rider.
A few minutes later, two sturdy handlers led him back down to the work area. Easy, Granat was not, but a forceful mover with endless power and a reach in his half-passes the like of which I have never seen since. And Christina made up in determination for her lack in size.
Their eventual gold medal was well deserved, but there were times in the schooling area when you couldn’t be sure Granat would even get in the competition ring.
In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Hilda was our anchor on Keen, and Robert Dover was a “rookie” on the team aboard Romantico, doing a creditable job in spite of the horse’s somewhat funky gaits.
At those Olympic Games, I spent a lot of time with my friends Sue and Terri Williams, owners of Abdullah who captured team gold and individual silver in the show jumping with Conrad Homfeld. Abdullah started his career as a dressage and event horse. Before we discovered how much jumping talent he had, I used
to teach Sue on him, and I even rode him in the third level regional championships in Buffalo, N.Y. It was incredibly exciting to see him and Conrad bring home those medals.
In the dressage competition, there was a horse named Ampere, who was 6 years old and competing in the Olympic Games, ridden by Jo Rutten. I actually tried this horse on the Santa Anita racetrack after the competition was over. Since then, the FEI rules have changed, and no horse younger than 8 can compete in the Grand Prix. That’s a good and horse-friendly rule, and my ride on Ampere convinced me that even with the most willing horse, facing Olympic competition at 6 was a bit too much, too soon.
I’d hoped the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games would be my turn, since I had two promising Grand Prix horses to try out on. As the time neared, however, I developed a medical issue that led to the sale of my stallion Leonardo 11, and after much denial and indecisiveness, I also leased Metallic to Jane F. Clark, Robert Dover’s sponsor. Dressage was only one of our FEI disciplines Jane supported; she had her jumpers going in another ring and also fielded a four-in-hand driving team on the side.
Consequently, in Atlanta I found myself an owner, which was way more stressful than riding, because of the imposed passiveness and the nervous waiting around. At any important competition, there’s bound to be a certain tension in the air, but Olympic fever is beyond that.
While the previous year we’d enjoyed great team spirit at the Pan American Games in Argentina, I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of cooperation and cohesiveness among the team members in Atlanta.
It was frustrating when one bad move in the freestyle wiped out an individual medal for Michelle Gibson on Peron. Then the heat, the bombings in the park and the general lack of coordination between the different venues for the sports all contributed to dampen one’s enthusiasm. In the end, the team bronze medal in dressage was an uplifting bonus, but the memories of “Hotlanta” do not count among my favorites.
We Can Make A Statement
The Olympic Games are considered the pinnacle of all achievements in sports, and yet they’re riddled with politics and a great deal of commercialism when determining the location. China this year was, perhaps, not the most politically correct place to have picked, but with their resources controlled by the state, the Chinese put on a dazzling performance as hosts.
It’s become so important to the athletes to build their career on Olympic Games that the sportsmanship and spirit of fair competition have suffered in some areas, and hence we have the drug testing.
In principle, it’s absolutely essential that any cheating is prevented, or the Games cannot continue. However, it’s becoming difficult for people who would never go near performance-enhancing drugs themselves, or consider giving them to their horse, to avoid every kind of masking agent and common topical product that may interfere with the testing or show up as a problem.
In an interview by the British magazine Horse & Hound, Princess Haya, FEI president and member of the International Olympic Committee, warns about the very real possibility that all equestrian events will be removed from the Olympic Games. And here’s what she had to say about dressage in particular: “The popularity of dressage is abnormally low, and there are complaints about judging and the makeup of judging panels and committees. Anyone who thinks equestrian sports are secure for London is mistaken.”
She then shows her fighting spirit by pointing out some of the high points of the eventing and show jumping and also by encouraging the English to show enthusiasm for all three disciplines and work to keep equestrian sports in the Games.
I well understand the excitement and fascination of Olympic Games, and yet I’m not married to them myself. I have had more fun at every World Equestrian Games I’ve attended, because it’s all about horses. Like everyone, I realize the value of being considered an “Olympic Sport” and the funding and prestige that goes with it. For those reasons, I do hope the FEI can convince the IOC to keep equestrian sports in the fold.
Should we lose our spot in the Olympic Games, there is, however, a chance we could make a stronger statement in the media and at the venue without having to compete with other sports for the attention. And maybe, by making the WEG our most prestigious event, we can concentrate on informing and advertising for one major effort and build a stronger fan base that way. There just might be life after the Olympic Games!
Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge, based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.