For some years, the elephant in the room has been that the Olympic Games has ceased to be the pinnacle of our sport in terms of difficulty, but this could not be said of Rio. Course-designer Pierre Michelet should be commended for bringing cross-country back to being the chief influence and USP of our sport.
So how tough was Rio compared to previous Olympic courses? In Rio, 41% of riders jumped clear across country, which is in line with previous Games — from 1964 to 2000 the percentage of clear rounds was consistently around 40%. However, three “soft” courses in Athens, Hong Kong and London followed, with an average of 69% jumping clear. So Rio was not unusually influential, it simply put the sport back to where it used to be: a conventional and exciting three-phase competition rather than a combined-training event with an uninfluential exhibition of cross-country.
Michelet’s interesting course tested the best, but allowed less experienced riders to put in good performances; 11 out of 13 teams completed and riders from China, Japan, Chile and Zimbabwe finished in the top 35. Importantly, it achieved the right result; no one could fluke a medal and the world’s leading nations came through.
Understandably, there was an assumption that the trend from recent Games would continue in Rio, but it is not entirely surprising that it didn’t — Michelet is never one to dumb things down and this was a classic Michelet creation.
Value four-star results
An average finishing score of 56 was enough to win the team gold medal — for example three results in the region of a 48 dressage, four time-faults and a fence down.
It’s easy to be clever in hindsight, but different nations planned for different events. I gather that from the outset the Australian plan was to have three experienced four-star horses and one wild card; Britain did the opposite, sending three with great three-star form and Chilli Morning.
Australia’s “wild card” came off — Chris Burton was outstanding on a nine-year-old — but, when it comes to the championship crunch, there is a massive gulf between three- and four-star experience.
In eventing it matters less what diet you’ve been on, or how perfect your technical skills are in an indoor school in January, it’s how you ride under pressure, particularly when it’s raining and the fences are growing; you need technical skill but you also need “instinct” and a “going to war” attitude.
But there weren’t lots of four-star pairs to choose from — Britain’s four-star results have been relatively thin recently, whereas the French, Germans, Australians and Kiwis have looked strong. They proved it in Rio, finishing 73 marks ahead.
Everyone wondered when the Germans would crumble after their run of team golds, and at one stage it looked as if they wouldn’t get a team medal at all. But, crucially, they recovered quickly from errors; Sandra Auffarth and Ingrid Klimke had run-outs yet were among the fastest riders. In the end, Germany came within 3.8 penalties of team gold.
Britain will come back — we have too much heritage not to — but perhaps we need to value four-star results more than those at three-star and CICs. We have relied for too long on William Fox-Pitt, who rode out of his skin — what a shame he couldn’t give Britain the full set of individual equestrian golds.
The road to Tokyo begins now. Let’s hope that eventing did enough to showcase talent, excitement and diversity in Rio to keep us in the Olympic movement, with another true three-phase competition.
Ref Horse & Hound; 25 August 2016