Graham Fletcher: Time for a serious debrief or we’ll miss out in Tokyo *H&H VIP*

  • I have never enjoyed watching an Olympics more than Rio 2016. This was fantastic sport, BBC coverage at its best and Clare Balding’s presentation skills deserving of her own gold medal.

    Many wonderful memories will linger on, none more so than Nick Skelton’s three rounds in the individual final with Big Star. It was the best performance from a horse and rider I’ve ever seen. And not just because he won showjumping’s ultimate prize, but the way he tackled Guilherme Jorge’s brilliantly constructed courses.

    I’ve long argued that when our sport entered a period of pastel shades and super-light jumps with no fillers, it resulted in boring, poncey showjumping. But the Rio tracks — with their vivid colours, impressive fillers and wide oxers — tested every combination’s bravery and accuracy to the limit.

    Having known Nick for decades, I’ve witnessed every battering his body has been through. To see him go first in the jump-off and ride with such flair and determination to set a target the other five couldn’t reach was vintage Skelly.

    His belief and confidence never wavered, even after the disappointments of earlier rounds. Following the team competition, I sent him a text saying: “Big Star’s jumping better with every round, I’m still backing you for a medal.” Skelly replied: “Get ready for a party, Fletch, I’m going to win it!”

    Nick Skelton rescued British Showjumping (BS) from what, until his gold medal, had been a disastrous season.

    A serious debrief

    When the champagne has been drunk and the dust has settled, I hope we start to address the shortcomings and failings of a season that has seen us go out of the super league, a shocker of a performance at our own Nations Cup at Hickstead and coming 12th out of 15 nations in the final of the Olympic team competition.

    Team manager Di Lampard has made mistakes, but I’ve never believed in criticising with the benefit of hindsight. We must look to ways of improving our infrastructure and top priority is to create a platform for the youth of today so they can progress to centre stage tomorrow.

    Although it works for eventing and dressage to have one team manager, showjumping is now too big for just one person to supervise Britain’s involvement. Ours is now a truly global sport; you only have to witness the massive crowds at the showjumping in Rio compared with the other equestrian disciplines.

    Next week (11 September), the grand prix at the Spruce Meadows Masters will be jumped for a prize fund of $3m (£2.3m). Factor in the unbelievable prize money on offer from the Global Champions League, and it’s going to take a herculean effort to get our top riders to play their part in getting us back into the super league.

    That’s why we so badly need a policy to promote our younger riders. We also need to excite owners to invest in horses, just like we did ahead of London 2012, and then give them an incentive to keep them.

    All hands on deck

    Di is a very nice person and a top coach, but she can’t do it all singlehandedly. BS should call a meeting as soon as possible and invite our top pros, past or present, to stimulate ideas and plans for the future. The goal must be to spend our World Class funding at the cutting edge of sport to maximise talent, as we’ve seen in sports like cycling.

    I predicted in an earlier H&H comment that Nick and Big Star would win gold or silver. I’ve never been so pleased to be right. I’ll also predict with equal conviction that if we do nothing and paper over the cracks, not only will we be out of the medals in Tokyo 2020, but we won’t even qualify.

    I sincerely want to be wrong on this one. So let’s take the blinkers off and start planning now.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 1 September 2016