Robert Ridland: Where The Olympic Show Jumping Format Could Go From Here

Aug 26, 2021 - 8:00 AM

In the aftermath of the Tokyo Olympic Games, where a new three-rider team format debuted to mostly negative reviews, U.S. show jumping Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland presents a potential solution: adding a speed competition at future Games.

I have been very familiar with the new procedures for the last couple of years, and I know the reasons why and all the interests at the table—including the International Olympic Committee, which is probably the most important one—that developed this new Olympic Games format.

Every sport has the same situation, and if the IOC isn’t in agreement with what you’re presenting to them, the sport could lose its position in the Olympic Games. The IOC officials are holding a pretty big hammer, and they’re doing it for the reasons that are important to them, and that’s worldwide visibility, etcetera. The concept of adding more flags, which is a request from the IOC, is a legitimate request because sports that don’t have very many flags tend to be very close to the chopping block.

We have a multitude of flags in our sport at the highest level. However, the number of teams that are capable of jumping an Olympic course—teams of four riders on multi-million-dollar horses—is a pretty limited number. Expanding the number of teams in Tokyo to me was a grave mistake, and I think most riders would agree. That was not the way to add countries. There are other ways of potentially adding flags that wouldn’t have compromised the team event.

Increasing the number of countries to 20—as it turned out there were 19 teams starting—made it an almost impossible job for course designer Santiago Varela to accomplish because his No. 1 task was to make sure the best teams ended up in the final, and to do that you have to test them pretty hard. But at the same time, you don’t want to be putting a bunch of teams on the floor that weren’t at that level. Nobody likes that. Nobody wants to experience that as a rider or see it as a spectator; it’s just not right. That was the worst part of it: that they used the team event to add flags.

Robert Ridland DHS_8678web
“There are an awful lot of countries out there that participate at the highest level of our sport, but they don’t have four riders on Olympic-caliber horses. They absolutely do, however, have one or two Olympic-caliber riders mounted on blazing fast 1.45-meter or 1.50-meter horses,” said U.S Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland. Mollie Bailey Photo

There are other ways potentially of adding flags, whether it’s more individuals, or whether it’s an idea I’ve been trumpeting for years, or for decades actually, ever since I was on the FEI Jumping Committee, and that’s to add an event.

Just take alpine skiing, for example. They don’t just have one individual ski race and one team event. No, they have downhill, and they have slalom, and they have the giant slalom, and so forth.

We have a sport that throughout the year, the professional sport, a very big element of it is the speed element, whether it’s a speed class in itself or whether it’s a jump-off. Traditionally, in championships, that element goes away. You don’t see that much of it. At the World Championships, the jump-off we had in Tryon was an absolute anomaly, and that won’t happen again for a few hundred years if the format stays the same, because after three full rounds of jumping, there tends not to be a tie to the hundredth of a second.

We’ve had a similar format for the past 50 years, and the speed element, which is something that spectators love in our sport, has been completely absent. Why should that be absent in the Olympic Games? For years and years and years, I’ve said, “We need to push for a speed event,” to go along with the individual, which is basically a grand prix, and to go with the team event, which is similar to a Nations Cup event.

You have all of those throughout the year, whether it’s at Aachen [Germany] or Spruce Meadows [Alberta] or wherever.

There are a lot of people unfamiliar with our sport, but anyone who saw that jump-off in the Olympic team final or saw the individual final jump-off is going to want to come back to see more of it. I’m a fan of lots of different sports. If I’m flipping through the channels and I see an Olympic sport I’m not familiar with, if I see it and like it, I’m going to come back the next night and watch more. But if I don’t understand it, or it’s boring, I’m not going to do that. That’s how you get fans of the sports. As long as it’s a really good event, and it’s exciting, that just helps add to the spectator base.

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Robert Ridland notes that both show jumping finals at the Tokyo Olympic Games—the team (won by Sweden) and individual (won by Ben Maher on Explosion W, pictured)—were exciting enough to draw in more fans to the sport. Lisa Slade Photo

If we had a speed event followed by a grand prix event and then followed by a team event (and not necessarily in that order), that’s one more chance for millions of sets of eyes to watch our sport. But just as important as being exciting, it’s something that is part of our sport on a regular basis.

It’s also the perfect avenue to bring in more flags. There are an awful lot of countries out there that participate at the highest level of our sport, but they don’t have four riders on Olympic-caliber horses. They absolutely do, however, have one or two Olympic-caliber riders mounted on blazing fast 1.45-meter or 1.50-meter horses. That’s a flag you can add. Now you’ve got tons of flags.

These riders are all out there, and so many of them don’t have a chance to get to the Olympics. They have the skill, but they don’t have the three teammates on grand prix horses.

I’m not going to say what the particulars of it should be. Maybe it should be 1.50-meter, maybe it should be 1.45-meter, and then we really get to see riders do what we get to see them do all the time—really go for it. This would require different horses, so you have to figure out that complication. I have a solution, but I don’t have how you get it accomplished logistically. But if there’s a will, there’s a way.

It solves everything the IOC wants, and you get more flags. And you get more flags by not watering down the team competition. Then you go back to the traditional team format; you come back to a number that makes more sense, anywhere between 12 and 16 teams. We do have the numbers for that. Then the course designer isn’t stuck having to compromise the course for the qualifier and then ramp it up for the final round to the extent they had to do in Tokyo.

The timing couldn’t be more opportunistic to get this done. We’re following an Olympics that had some aspects that none of us liked. Ultimately, welfare of the horse is our No. 1 concern—it always has been and always will be—and we need to protect that, for sure. That’s the No. 1 reason why nobody liked not having a discard score.

Let’s see if we can come up with some tweaks to fix what we don’t like and preserve what went well in Tokyo. What went well were the two amazing finals—individual and team.

I think there’s a solution out there, and I’m going to fight as hard as I can for that extra event, a speed event that would just help our sport immensely and create more opportunities for other people to see it.

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