An Olympic Games like no other has unfolded in Tokyo, and it has certainly provided an enjoyable interlude in a world upended by Covid-19.
It was a modern Olympics in the truest sense. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), once considered a somewhat traditional and staid body, threw caution to the wind and instituted some big changes ahead of Tokyo, urging some sports to re-examine their formats.
The aims included broader participation and, in some cases, faster-paced programs better suited to television. In the end, in stadiums largely devoid of spectators, it became the Television Games.
It pushed ahead with changes aimed at increasing flexibility, boosting female participation and bolstering youth and urban appeal.
Horse sport fans will recall the consternation over changes to the Olympic equestrian events, which have been well traversed in these columns in recent years. Crucially, team contests were cut to three riders, dispensing with the drop score.
This enabled more countries to be represented, but it also ramped up the pressure on all three squad members in each team to perform.
FEI secretary-general Ingmar De Vos acknowledged in 2017: “It wasn’t easy for our community to make such drastic changes to our Olympic formats, but the national federations knew the importance of this decision and ultimately supported the proposed changes.”
In the afterglow of the closing ceremony, it is still too early to make a final judgment on the changes — and, at the end of the day, the only judgment that will really count is that of the IOC. No doubt, IOC members will receive all the data they need on media and social media engagement and will move forward from there.
Some of the changes were an undoubted success. Skateboarding and sport climbing have surely cemented a place at the Games. They were great to watch and were tailored well to a television audience. The 3×3 basketball was fast-paced and ideally suited to television, while the mixed triathlon relay was a great television spectacle.
The arrival of high definition television has been a boon for some sports. White water kayaking — certainly a minority sport — was truly eye-catching in close-up slow-motion replays. Many Olympic sports benefited from the explosion in the number of big-screen televisions that consumers have at home.
But I want to deal with the modern pentathlon, in particular the women’s contest which erupted in controversy over what I am going to politely term as the failure of some horse-and-rider combinations to gel.
It is a recipe for distress, frustration, and, in an era where horse welfare is absolutely paramount, bound to attract much scrutiny.
I am all for sporting traditions. Indeed, much of the push-back against the reforms seen in the Olympic equestrian events centered around concerns that the disciplines’ traditions were being tampered with.
In the modern pentathlon, riders have only 20 minutes to become acquainted with a showjumping horse before being required to jump a course.
I have no doubt that the horses are carefully selected to be suitable for this event, and I also have no doubt that the standard of the rider will be an important influence on the outcome.
But anyone with even a passing knowledge of horses will understand that this is as much a test of the horse as it is of the rider. And the modern pentathlon is supposed to be a test of the multi-discipline skills of the competitors, not the horse.
There is much heat in the debate right now, so the whole issue needs to be examined over the coming months with cooler heads.
The women’s pentathlon showjumping had all the appearances of a contest between horse and rider, instead of between competitors. And that was a terrible look for the sport — for all horse sport, actually.
Some would argue that the men’s showjumping section of the modern pentathlon passed without a hitch, but I’m not sure that’s really the point.
Perhaps, the modern pentathlon needs to experience the winds of change, too, and look to substitute some other skills test. I’m sure plenty of options could be unearthed.
As for the other equestrian events, the format changes didn’t produce any big upsets in terms of upending the world order. It certainly got more competitors in the mix, and I’ll be interested to see the final figures on audience engagement.
I do worry about the sad loss of a Swiss eventing horse, Jet Set, who suffered a leg injury during the cross-country that resulted in his euthanasia. I’m not sure what the IOC will think about the loss of a horse on the Olympic stage.