75-year-old dressage rider ruled out of Rio Olympics

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Hiroshi Hoketsu and Whisper 115 at the London 2012 Olympic Games. 
Hiroshi Hoketsu and Whisper 115 at the London 2012 Olympic Games. © The Rambling Man and Kim Ratcliffe of Think Equestrian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Japanese dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, who at the age of 75 would have been the oldest athlete ever to take part in an Olympic Games, has missed out on qualifying for Rio 2016 after his horse was taken ill.

The nature of the horse’s problems have not been revealed, but Hoketsu, who competed with the late Whisper 115 at both the Beijing and London Olympics, said getting the horse well was his priority.

He had been training in The Netherlands and Germany, but is now unable to take part in Japan’s qualifying trials. “To my regret, I gave up on my dream of competing in the Rio Olympics,” he said.

Hiroshi Hoketsu and Whisper 115, pictured in 2008.
Hiroshi Hoketsu and Whisper 115, pictured in 2008.

“I don’t want to push the horse, so unfortunately I have given up upon the dream of competing in the Rio Olympics,” Hoketsu said. “There’s nothing decided about the future. First I’d like to prioritize getting the horse well again.”

Had he competed at Rio, Hoketsu would have overtaken the previous oldest Olympian, Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn, who participated in the 1920 Antwerp Games at the age of 72, winning a silver medal. Austrian dressage rider Arthur von Pongracz de Szent-Miklós und Óvár was also 72 when he competed at the 1936 Summer Olympics, placing fourth in the Men’s Team Dressage.

Hoketsu was the oldest sportsman at the London 2012 Games, aged 71. His appearance four years earlier was one of the longest breaks between Olympic appearances for an equestrian, after he went to his first Games in Tokyo 1964, competing as a showjumper.

His previous mount, hanoverian mare Whisper 115, formerly named Wanessa, was euthanised at the age of 15 in late 2013. She had suffered a cracked pastern not long after the London Games which was operated on, but unfortunately it became infected. A further operation in late November 2013 failed to save the mare.

Born in Tokyo, Hoketsu learned to ride at the elite Tokyo Riding Club and earned a spot on the 1964 Olympic show jumping team, where he finished 40th. He then moved into the commercial world,  following a graduate degree in Economics at Duke University in the USA he worked with the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann La Roche before becoming Manager of the Tokyo subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

It was his wife, Motoko, who introduced Hoketsu to the charms of the dressage arena having enjoyed watching the sport herself in Europe. Fascinated by the detail and precision of the sport, he began to ride again in the mornings before going to work and, arriving home from trips abroad, would rush straight to the stables to polish up his technique. His efforts earned him a spot at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 when he was 47, but his dream fell apart when his horse unexpectedly failed quarantine tests due to a respiratory problem. So he decided he would concentrate on competing at home in Japan where he won five national championships in a row between 1988 and 1992.

But the dream of returning to the Olympic spotlight had never gone away, and following his retirement from Johnson & Johnson in 2003, Hoketsu flew to Aachen in Germany to meet dressage trainer Ton de Ridder. Under de Ridder’s tutelage he qualified for the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2006 only to be disappointed again when his horse, Calando, was unsound but Hoketsu would still not admit defeat. And then Whisper, the chestnut horse with an unusual taste for bananas, came into his life. They gelled into a great partnership and the rest is history.

The next oldest Olympic equestrian competitor is believed to have been British dressage rider Lorna Johnstone. Born on September 4, 1902, she enjoyed a long career, competing at the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, in Mexico in 1968 and, at the ripe age of 70, in Munich in 1972 where she was uncharitably called “The Galloping Granny”.

Additional reporting: Louise Parkes

 

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