There’s no doubt top-level sport looks different this year, with the Cheltenham Festival running behind closed doors and the Olympics set to have no overseas spectators. Ellie Hughes investigates the effect this has on competitors
THE national anthem echoes around the empty arena as the Union Jack begins its lofty ascent. A British rider stands proud on the podium, brimming with relief, disbelief and pride. But as the final chord dies down there is no rapturous applause, no whooping or hollering, no standing ovation. This is Tokyo 2021 – the pandemic-hit Olympics that rewrote sporting history.
It is still too early to say exactly how this summer’s events will pan out, but chances are Tokyo will be a very different experience to any Games that have gone before it.
Performing without crowds is something we are fast becoming accustomed to, but how does the lack of an audience affect riders and horses? Do they notice a difference? Do they really care?
“‘Strange’ is the only way to describe it,” says jockey David Bass. “To be honest, once I’m in the moment I’m just trying to ride as best I can and go through the motions. It’s before and after the race that the silence hits home.”
Synonymous with Cheltenham is the famous roar that signals the start of the meeting. This year’s sound came pre-recorded and was belted out over loud speakers.
“Big race meetings are all about the spectacle and the shared experience,” continues David. “I would normally have had my family and friends supporting me at Cheltenham, so it was a very different atmosphere.”
Irish showjumper Shane Breen concurs.
“I miss the butterflies and sense of occasion that come with riding in front of a lot of people,” he says. “As a professional rider I like to think that once I’m in the ring and focused on my job I don’t notice what’s going on around me, but I can’t imagine riding somewhere like the Olympics without an audience. How sad would it be to win a medal with no one there watching?”
When Dannie Morgan won the inter I title at the postponed Winter Dressage Championships last summer, there were only a handful of onlookers and several journalists to witness it.
“Of course winning a national title is very exciting, but in dressage there’s an element of showmanship and wanting to show off to the crowd when everything’s going well. Without that it’s a pretty flat experience,” admits Dannie. “There’s no doubt that performing in front of an audience lifts me and enhances my riding.”
ACCORDING to sports psychologist Michael Caulfield, the ability to thrive under pressure and bounce off an audience is a trait shared by those at the very top of their game.
“There is an element of theatre about top-level sport,” he says. “Elite sportspeople are performers who feed off the crowd and respond positively to receiving direct praise and criticism. Almost without exception, they love the atmosphere, the buzz and the adrenaline.
“Competing in an empty stadium or arena is not a scenario anyone was prepared for,” he continues. “It is something we have all been thrust into.”
Five-star eventer Alex Bragg believes there is a fine balance between being a professional rider and being able to enjoy the camaraderie that is associated with being part of a successful team.
“We’re all so competitive and put in so much hard work that celebrating when things go well is a very important release,” he says. “You can’t go away and celebrate in a room by yourself – there’s no point in that.”
Alex also believes the crowd plays an important role in motivating riders.
“When I made my Burghley debut five years ago I was third or fourth out on the cross-country and the crowd lining the track was six or seven deep,” he recalls. “They were all cheering and clapping me – it blew my mind. It made me kick on and get on with it. I would hate to set off on a five-star track with no one watching.”
“I was very grateful for the crowds around the warm-up and on the cross-country at Pau,” she says. “I would worry that without them it would be difficult to create the same buzz that kick-starts us as riders.”
SO is it the same for horses? How do they respond to the lack of atmosphere?
“It can definitely help with the more excitable ones in the dressage,” says Laura. “The first time I really noticed the lack of a crowd was at Le Lion d’Angers [young horse World Championship last October]. It felt very weird because the spectators there are normally so vocal and supportive.”
Top riders agree that learning to cope with the atmosphere of competing in front of an audience is an important part of a young horse’s education.
“I think it would be detrimental to their long-term development not to be able to compete in front of an audience – but hopefully it won’t come to that,” says Dannie.
Alex adds: “At the lower levels [the behind closed doors rule] probably doesn’t make much of a difference, but somewhere like the eight- and nine-year-old CCI4*-S at Blenheim, for example, where a lot of young horses have their first eyeful of a crowd, is a very important stepping stone. I’d hate to get to Badminton or Burghley with a horse that hadn’t been exposed to that kind of distraction.”
Alex also highlights the role that vocal support can play in the closing stages of a gruelling cross-country test.
“When the horse is getting leg-weary, in the last two or three minutes of a five-star or major championship, the noise and encouragement of a cheering crowd can really help you home,” he points out. “Similarly, on the final day in the showjumping when a horse is tired, the buzz of a packed arena can give him that extra lift and shot of adrenaline that carries him through a 90-second round.”
All agree that the current situation may not be ideal, but until equestrian sport can return in its full glory, modified sport is better than no sport at all.
“We are all in the same boat, so it’s just something that we need to accept and adapt to,” concludes Laura.
Lower highs, higher lows
ONE of the interesting aspects of competing behind closed doors with fewer people watching and limited personal interaction is that the extremes of emotions are likely to be less pronounced, says sports psychologist Michael Caulfield.
“The highs will be less high, and the lows not as low,” he explains. “There could also be some unexpected results. There will be horses and riders who will come to the fore in a quieter, less pressured environment and those who will miss performing in front of an audience and might not produce their absolute best. It will be interesting to look back at the results of major competitions in a year or so and see who has done what.”
This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (15 April, 2021)
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