The road to Rio: who has to qualify at the Europeans *H&H VIP*

  • Britain is not the only nation anxiously awaiting its last chance to qualify a team for Rio 2016.

    The Olympic principle of “universality” means that emerging nations often get a place while stronger countries languish at home.

    But there is a strict limit of 200 horses in total from all three disciplines at Rio’s Deodoro horse park — and the quota also includes individual riders from those countries not sending full teams.

    Germany, the Netherlands and the USA are the only countries qualified in all three disciplines, as several of their historic rivals still fight for the chance to defend their London 2012 medals. Brazil, as host country receives automatic qualification for every discipline.

    Pressure on British showjumpers

    Most anxiety is attached to showjumping, in which just three jumping places remain for a plethora of competitive European teams that failed to qualify at last summer’s World Equestrian Games (WEG).

    Who fills these three places will be decided at the FEI European Championships at Aachen later this month (19-23 August).

    Britain is up against in-form Belgium and Switzerland, Ireland, and — among others — the Spanish side, who can always pull off a big surprise. Finland, the clear leader of Nations Cup European division two, is also in the mix.

    Belgium won the Hickstead leg of the Nations Cup last Friday (31 July) after jumping-off against Switzerland and the already qualified USA, giving manager Dirk Demeersman extra confidence.

    “Today [Hickstead] is the first time a [Belgian] chef d’equipe is in the luxury of my position,” he said. “The sad thing is that I will have to disappoint a couple of good riders who deserve to be at Aachen.”

    Switzerland is breathing a sigh of relief that its 2012 individual gold medallist Steve Guerdat is free to compete after his suspension was provisionally lifted last month (news, 30 July), following positive dope tests attributed to suspected feed contamination.

    But his London 2012 champion Nino Des Buissonets and second string Nasa are still grounded. Claude Nordmann, Switzerland’s director of international affairs, admitted this is could be a “handicap”.

    “We all are hoping the horse suspensions will be lifted soon,” said Dr Nordmann. “We are very confident that the rider, backed by the Swiss federation, will bring all the required proof to allow the FEI to reinstate the implicated horses.”

    Ireland bypassed the Hickstead Nations Cup for the first time in living memory, conserving resources for its own Nations Cup at Dublin on 7 August, and Aachen.

    Jumping team high performance manager Robert Splaine said: “We expect the European Championships to be hugely competitive as there is a lot at stake.

    “Our preparations have gone well and all riders on our long list appear to be in good shape, and we approach the challenge with confidence.”

    Meanwhile in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia lost the region’s Rio qualifier to Qatar, whose team now flies under the guidance of Olympic medallist and Global Champions Tour (GCT) supremo Jan Tops.

    In the run-up to London 2012, Saudi Arabia pre-selected six riders and spent more than £40m on “made” horsepower. This unique approach landed the team showjumping bronze, but it has struggled to build on this result, with the Saudi Equestrian Fund reining in its budget. Abdullah Al Sharbatly (36th) and Sydney 2000 individual bronze medallist Khaled Al Eid (199th) are the only Saudi riders in the world top 200.

    Eventing worries

    France and New Zealand are two major eventing nations yet to qualify for Rio.

    Historically, the Kiwis have sailed through the qualifier for countries from Oceania (south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand) — this time held at Boekelo in October.

    But France, which lost its Rio place won at WEG following Maxime Livio’s positive dope test, has to requalify at the Europeans at Blair Castle (10-13 September), where just two spots remain.

    These are also being chased by the improving Belgian side, by Sweden — who provided the 2012 individual silver medallist Sara Algotsson Ostholt — and by Spain and Italy.

    Australia’s eventers qualified at WEG, with a chance of upholding its long medal tradition, and its dressage riders gained an easy ticket by being the best — and only — representatives from Oceania in Caen, in 10th place.

    However, Oceania’s Rio jumping qualifier at Hagen on 25 August will be a tougher call. Only one slot is available, and the Kiwis and Japanese, aiming to do well as they prepare for Tokyo 2020, want it too. Australia and New Zealand will field teams drawn from riders based in Europe.

    Canada gained France’s eventing slot by default, but is smarting that Rio is the first time it cannot field a full dressage team in decades, despite best-ever results at WEG and the recent Pan Am Games.

    Brazil receives automatic entry as Olympic hosts, and so the FEI reduced the number of places available to teams from the rest of the Americas.

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    In dressage, Equine Canada is now evaluating the cost of securing two more athletes far enough up the separate Olympic rankings list to join qualified individual Belinda Tussell in what is known as a “composite” team.

    Eventers are also able to make up a team in the same way, but showjumpers are not.

    On the basis of WEG performances, Spain, Sweden and Denmark seem likely to secure the remaining dressage places available for European teams at Aachen.