As we prepared our previews of the top teams and individuals for this Olympic Preview Issue, I was struck by how many competitors kept returning to the world’s most famous competition. Literally dozens are making their second Olympic start, but Athens will be the third (or more) Olympic start for at least 13 riders. We know that at least eight will be contesting the Olympics for the fifth time or more, with Canadian show jumping legend Ian Millar riding in his ninth consecutive Olympics since 1972, a new record among equestrians.
The seven others are show jumpers Ludger Beerbaum (making his fifth consecutive start) and Nick Skelton (five), dressage riders Robert Dover (six), Anky van Grunsven (five) and Louise Nathhorst (five), and event riders Andrew Nicholson (five) and Andrew Hoy (six). And Hoy’s wife, Bettina, will be making her third Olympic eventing start, a family total of nine Olympic starts for Australia and Germany.
Plus, German equine superstar For Pleasure will be making his third consecutive Olympic start in show jumping (under two riders), with two team gold medals already hanging around his chestnut neck. (Rembrandt, another German, also contested three straight Olympics, culminating in 1996, after winning two individual and two team gold medals.)
A string of Olympics spanning two or three decades isn’t an entirely new phenomenon–Mike Plumb rode in the three-day event eight times (the previous record), Frank Chapot rode in six straight, Bill Steinkraus rode in five, and Reiner Klimke rode in seven. But I think that even those legends would admit that it’s a lot harder now because the competition is many times more numerous, better prepared and more experienced. In the ’50s and ’60s, selection trials were little more than a training exercise since U.S. Equestrian Team coaches were lucky if they had four experienced riders and six sound horses to even consider, for any discipline. Now, U.S. show jumping, eventing and dressage each have at least a dozen qualified U.S. candidates each year, and if you live in Germany, the hardest part is getting selected for the dressage or show jumping teams. The Olympics are easy after that.
It’s hard for the vast majority of us who aren’t elite riders or international competitors to fully grasp what an astounding feat it is to ride in two consecutive Olympics, let alone three, five or nine. It’s kind of like catching lightning in a bottle or winning the lottery. But it’s certainly far more than just luck. First, you have to have the desire, the drive. Then you have to be able to find a series of horses with the raw ability to compete at the highest level. Next, you have to have a system that works to develop, train and condition them to place well enough in the selection trials to make the team, plus keep them sound to reach the Olympics, usually in some faraway land. And doing it repeatedly is what proves a system of both riding and training. Getting to the Olympics once could be lucky; doing it again and again–well, that takes inspired riding and clever training.
Maybe contesting the Olympics time after time after time is a modern, elite addiction, a challenge that riders like these can never quite stop chasing. Maybe this baker’s dozen of regularly repeating Olympians is testimony to modern training and athletic preparation, or evidence that youth really is lasting longer these days than ever before.
Either way, these consistently excellent riders will deserve our admiration when we see them jumping or passaging in Athens. To have seriously contested so many Olympics is truly a remarkable achievement.