Last weekend’s news that the Olympic eventing format in 2028 might have to be a short format-style competition came as a surprise.
Setting aside the short notice, when we all thought eventing’s place in the Games was already secure, moving to having cross-country as the final phase – the crux of this – raises three broad questions.
Olympic eventing format: three questions
The first is one of principle and history. Eventing’s roots are in the military and the traditional format is designed to show that a horse remains fit, supple and obedient on showjumping day after the rigours of the speed and endurance test. Although there are far more eventing competitions in the world now in which cross-country is the final phase than ones in which showjumping runs last, it sticks in the craw to abandon that at the highest level of our sport, our showcase event where we are displaying our passion to the world.
The second, linked, question is around horse welfare. When cross-country is the final discipline, there is no horse inspection after it to ensure horses are still in good fettle following that test. Would this make a difference to the way riders tackle the cross-country – and could we see more “bad pictures” as a result, with lame or tired horses pushed to finish?
I’m not terribly convinced by that argument. I think that in the moment a rider would make the same decision to continue on a lame or tired horse whether or not there was showjumping still to come. It is of course wholly unacceptable and something we need to continue to work to remove from the sport, but we have seen horses pushed too hard at Badminton Horse Trials and Burghley Horse Trials and other long format events, despite the fact riders know there is another phase to come. With an Olympic medal at stake – and, presumably, an all-to-count format of just three riders, with heavy penalties for substitution – the pressure to finish and to finish fast is there whatever the format.
I don’t know that riders would ride differently – the more salient point is that with cross-country last, they could be rewarded differently for those actions. If the ground jury didn’t pull them up mid-round – and we all know that is an inexact science and doesn’t always happen when it perhaps should – a rider who finished with an exhausted or lame horse could take home a medal rather than being eliminated at the trot-up or adding plenty of penalties in the showjumping the next day.
A formal horse inspection after cross-country would slow proceedings down to an unacceptable degree – no one wants to wait several hours after cross-country has finished to know the final result. Is there a compromise? Perhaps each horse could be trotted up half an hour after its round. We’d need separate officials to preside over that, though, because the ground jury would be busy making decisions around the cross-country, which would continue to run simultaneously.
And that leads us on to question three, which is that cross-country results at big events are rarely quick. It is common at Badminton and Burghley for scores to be provisional for many hours after the last horse sprints through the finish flags, while the ground jury review penalties for the likes of missed flags and broken frangible devices.
Again, no one wants to have a medal ceremony four hours after the sport finishes, when all the crowd have gone home. If cross-country is to come last at the Olympics, the sport has to find a way to solve this, whether it’s simpler rules, more officials or something else.
A hybrid format?
In the detail, one of the suggestions is a hybrid format – dressage in the morning and team showjumping in the afternoon on both the first two days, followed by cross-country on day three (where the team medals would be decided), then showjumping for the individual medals on day four.
I don’t understand the advantage of mixing up the dressage and showjumping in this proposal – that seems confusing and like something of a red herring among the bigger questions.
Aside from that, I quite like this idea and the way it retains something of the traditional format with the individual medals decided in the pressure cauldron of showjumping. One has to wonder, though, if the International Olympic Committee want to go back to four days of eventing, having reduced to three for Paris, and whether this proposal really satisfies the request to award medals after cross-country.
Another proposal puts both the team and individual showjumping phases before the cross-country. This seems wildly confusing as a scoring proposition… “William Fox-Pitt is just starting, he’s on a score of 32 for the British team but 36 individually because he had one down in the individual showjumping round”. Perhaps this can be solved by giving out total team scores plus individual scores which include both rounds, and never getting into the breakdown of the team scores. But I’m not sure it’s where we want to go if we are trying to make the sport more understandable by the general public.
And what if someone falls off and is eliminated in the individual showjumping? Could they still go cross-country for their team? If the International Olympic Committee insists we cannot give two medals for one performance – and that ship sailed long ago – the “individual final” surely has to come after all the team elements are concluded.
In the end, for me, having cross-country last is not the worst proposal I’ve ever heard for the Olympic eventing format. We all know the sport exists at the top level in multiple different formats and that we have to make compromises to keep our place at the Games.
If we are retaining all three tests, in much their current form, I can live with that. But there are certainly some details to iron out to ensure our all-important social licence is to the fore here and that we can crown our champions in a timely manner.
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