William Funnell: ‘the Olympics shouldn’t become about how much money you can spend’ *H&H VIP*

  • There are two ways of looking at the FEI’s proposals to reduce Olympic showjumping teams to three riders (news, 14 April).

    Equestrian competition is capped at 200 horses, so the idea is, by changing to three-member teams, they could up the number of participating nations from 40 to 55.

    But would allowing more nations to take part improve the sport and secure its future as an Olympic discipline, or would it just lead to the competition being dumbed down? Are there even 55 nations who can compete at that level while maintaining the standard of excellence expected at the Olympics?

    While showjumping doesn’t face the welfare issue eventing does with a three-horse team, where riders might feel pressured to complete a cross-country round against their instincts, it would make the competition very fragile.

    It would only take one rider to have a bad day or a horse not to like the water for the entire team to be eliminated. For the crowds, teams of three might make the competition more understandable — as every score would count — but it would also lead to freak results.

    One of the big problems with this debate is that every national federation has a vote. The lesser nations are obviously going to support opening it up to more participants.

    There are pros to having a system that allows more nations to compete, and emerging nations should be encouraged. But when we have countries such as Ireland and Belgium unable to go to Rio because the standard of competition in the European zone is so much stronger, you wonder if the qualification procedures need tightening.

    These two nations have plenty of riders capable of meeting the minimum eligibility requirement, which states that before 19 June they should have jumped two clears in a three-star grand prix, have no more than one down in a four-star or two down at five-star. Yet some of the countries with teams qualified for the Olympics are struggling to find riders who can reach that level of competence.

    The answer might be to have more individuals and fewer teams — while also looking into improving the qualifying criteria to make sure standards are kept up.

    Money talks

    I have a Japanese rider training with me ahead of Rio. Japan is fielding a team this year, which is a good thing, as with Tokyo coming up in 2020, they have an increasing investment in the sport.

    As the Saudis have demonstrated by spending more money than anyone else on top horses, huge financial investment has become the nature of the game.

    As a pro who earns a living from horses, it’s great, as every new country taking part requires the horsepower to have a good enough team.

    The super-leagues and the Global Champions Tour have also been increasing the demand for five-star horses, and this pushes the price of a good horse outside the reach of normal people. But is this progress? The Olympics shouldn’t become about how much money you can spend.

    If we change the Olympic team format, the Nations Cups would have to follow. But a better format for the super-leagues would be for four to jump the first round, with the best three from each team going forward to round two.

    Shortening the competition would work at somewhere like Hickstead, where the big ring loses atmosphere in a drawn-out contest, and a simplified format would be better for the viewing public.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 21 April 2016