Horse-trading and the Olympics

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When I was younger, the Olympic Games were the domain of amateur athletes.

It was a noble ideal, but not without its problems. The line between an amateur athlete and a professional was always a little blurred.

I can remember communist bloc countries having top athletes serving in the military, where no doubt their quest for a gold medal took precedence over more mundane duties.

On the capitalist side of the equation, things were equally troubled. I remember one world-class amateur track athlete explaining how he would always be given first-class airline tickets to track events, which he would downgrade to economy class for a bit of cash.

Boomerang and Eddie Macken in 1978
Boomerang and Eddie Macken in 1978

And, of course, drawing the line with sponsorship was also difficult, with top “amateur” sportsmen and women understandably pushing the limit to maximise their return.

Remember Irish showjumper Eddie Macken and the legendary Boomerang? They are just one example; Macken, as a professional with sponsorship, was not allowed to compete at Munich in 1976 – a time when the combination was at their best.

The International Olympic Committee realised the only way forward was to lift the ban on professional athletes, and it was surely the saving of the Games.

Without it, controversy would have raged around amateurism and, quite simply, the best in the world would have stayed away, more interested in a pay cheque than an Olympic gold.

Top athletes are the best in the world and they are part of a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry. They deserve to be handsomely rewarded for their dedication and skill.

Technology has played a huge role in sport, whether it is latest swimsuit or new coatings on a boat hull. All of this, of course, can be controlled with regulations to ensure that when the best athletes in any given discipline front up, they are competing on a level playing field.

Equestrian sport is, to my mind, on a different level altogether.

Naturally, any rider in contention for an Olympic medal has to be a supreme equestrian.

They need exceptional riding skills, the heart of a lion and nerves of steel. But they also need a mount that has the athletic ability, temperament and training to win a medal.

It is, on this level, such a unique sport. The medals are not only a recognition of the riders’ abilities, but also those of the horse.

Therefore, at the end of 2011, before an FEI deadline requiring horses entered for the London Olympics to be registered with the world governing body as the property of owners of the same nationality as the athlete, we saw a flurry of horse trading.

It is, of course, to be expected. Countries invest millions of dollars in their pursuit of Olympic Golds.

It is all perfectly understandable and transparent, but I am sure every Olympic trainspotter has a nagging thought or two about this.

When you see stories that begin along these lines – “Two of Britain’s top showjumping horses will now be ridden by Saudi Arabia team members following a number of sales and transfers in the run up to the Olympics” – it becomes uncomfortably clear that there is an added dimension to the quest for Olympic equestrian glory.

The Saudi Arabia show-jumping team, the last to qualify for the games, has been boosting its horsepower by the December 31 deadline, as have other athletes.

In New Zealand, Katie McVean sold her mount to the Saudis last year in a move that may ultimately cost her an Olympic berth.

Where does this begin and end?

At present, it ended on December 31 – the FEI cutoff date.

I cannot be critical of anyone who takes this route. The rules allow it and big budgets help in the quest for pretty much anything.

But anyone who takes a promising young horse, brings it on and takes it to Olympic glory is the kind of Olympic hero I’m looking for.


Some recent sales of top horses:

Showjumpers:
Al Capone – from Antonio Mariñas (Spain) to Saudi ownership
BMC Van Grunsven Simon – from Jeroen Dubbledam (The Netherlands) to Beezie Madden (US)
Cadjanine Z – from Patrick Spits (Netherlands) to Gregory Wathelet (Belgium)
Caramell KS – from Svante Johansson (SWE)  to Saudi ownership
Casanova  – from Christina Liebherr’s (Switzerland)  to United Arab Emirates
Ciske van Overis – from Guy Williams (GB) to Edwina Tops-Alexander (Australia) to Rodrigo Pessoa (Brazil)
Copin van de Broy – from Gregory Wathelet (Belgium) to Marcus Ehning (Germany)
Hunter’s Scendix – from Belgium to Eric Lamaze (Canada)
Kellemoi de Pepita – from Michael Robert (France) to Qatar
Luikka – from Shane Breen’s (Ireland) to Eric Lamaze (Canada)
Noblesse de Tess – from Rene Lopez (Colombia), to Edwina Alexander (Australia) then Kamal Bahamdan (Saudi Arabia)
Sanctos Van Het Gravenhof – from Katarina Offel (Ukraine) to Scott Brash (UK)
SIEC Livello – from Cameron Hanley (Ireland) to Sweden
Sultan V – from Bruce Menzies (UK) to Saudi ownership
Talan – from Robert Smith (UK) to HH Prince Faisal, Saudi ownership
Titus – from Guy Williams (UK) to Edwina Tops-Alexander (Australia)
Uraquay – from Nina Fagerström (Norway)  to Karina Johannpeter (Brazil)
Verdi – from Stephanie van den Brink (Netherlands) to Eric Lamaze (Canada)

Eventers
Butts Leon – from Andreas Dibowski (Germany) to Nina Ligon (Thailand)
Charlie Weld – from Kai Ruder (Germany) to Julian Stiller (USA)
Mr Medicott – from Frank Ostholt (Germany) to Karen O’Connor (USA)

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6 thoughts on “Horse-trading and the Olympics

  • January 6, 2012 at 1:33 am
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    As a life long equestrian sport fan (from Britain) I totally agree with the writer of the article. “Shamateurism” marred the Olympics and the change to “open” competition was long overdue. Tennis authorities correctly took that route in 1968. GB’s SJ medal chances were adversely affected from 1976 till 1988 because Prince Philip required Britain to take the lead in making many top riders to turn professional – some wanted to but others e.g. the late great Caroline Bradley did not wish to but were forced to. Other countries of course did not follow our lead!

    It’s odd that the video tribute to Eddie and Boomerang has some early footage which I think is Eddie on the chestnut Pele rather than Boomerang. Fortunately the rest is the bay legend. Ironically he would almost certainly not have been successful nowadays, because for most of his career he had regular treatment with bute.

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  • January 7, 2012 at 3:38 am
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    Another eventer:
    Cavalor Demeter – from Raf Kooreman (Netherlands) to Marilyn Little-Meredith (USA)

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  • January 8, 2012 at 3:38 am
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    I will add more eventers:

    Mystery Whisper from Heath Ryan (Australia) to Philipp Dutton (USA)
    Horseware’s Parco from Peter Thomsen (GER) to Italy
    Fernhill Gloster Rebel from Duarte Seabra (POR) to Will Faudree (USA)
    Pretty Darling from Kai-Steffen Meier (GER) to Japan

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  • January 17, 2012 at 9:36 am
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    I agree, bringing a horse on and competing them to the Olympics is the highest mark of a horseman – and that is what the Olympics should be celebrating. To simply throw a talented horse and a talented rider together and hope they stick because of finances and ownership nationalities is not the Olympic ideal of supreme athleticism at all, and our sports will be poorer for it.

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  • January 25, 2012 at 8:56 am
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    More jumpers have changed hands:
    Abdul Aziz – from Steven Franks to John Whitaker (both (GB)
    Bijou Van De Vijfheide – from Trevor Coyle (Ireland) to Guy Williams (GB)
    Figo De Muze (renamed Golden Hawk) -from Jos Lansink (Belgium) to Shane Breen (Ireland)

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