Tokyo: between questions and emotions

18 August 2021Author : Myriam Rousselle

The Olympic Games have been over for about 10 days and the athletes, human and equine, have all returned home. What can we learn from these unprecedented Olympic Games and its many dimensions? 

Postponed for one year, held without the public and under drastic sanitary conditions, the Tokyo Olympic Games took place under conditions that were far from normal. As such, the determination and resilience shown by the Olympic players (the organization, athletes, staff...) is perhaps what will mark them the most. In spite of the often-thwarted plans, it’s necessary to note that the emotions provided by the unique spectacle of the Olympic Games were worth it. "For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, the whole world came together. Sport has returned to the forefront. Billions of people around the world have been united by emotion, sharing moments of joy and inspiration. That gives us hope," said Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the closing ceremony of the Japanese games. It’s true that the sports debates of these Olympics haven’t failed to thrill us. How can you not tremble in front of the screen when Dutch runner Sifan Hassan, the 1500-meter favorite, falls at the beginning of the last lap before going up against her competitors to win the series? How can you not be touched when in the high jump final, the last two athletes in the competition decide to skip the "jump-off" and share the gold medal? How can you not be struck by the harmony that emerges from Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and Dalera BB's final round, the confidence between Ben Maher and Explosion W in the individual medal jump-off, and Amande de B'Néville's unconditional desire to do well for her rider Julia Krajewski in the final show jumping round? Yes, as always, the Games have moved us.

But not always for the best. The terrible images of the German pentathlete, in despair over Saint Boy (misnamed?), the wayward horse she had drawn for the equitation event, didn’t leave us feeling indifferent... connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs alike! The animal organizations didn’t fail to seize upon the subject either, calling on the UIPM, International Union of Modern Pentathlon, to review its rules. And equestrian sports riders too asked the question. The stances of recognized riders coupled with the protests of animal organizations haven’t gone unnoticed: the UIPM announced it was urgently forming a working group following these Games in order to take "…a series of measures to improve the welfare of horses in the modern pentathlon and to create a discipline of riding that is safer for all participants." This is undeniably a good thing, but isn't this redesign of the pentathlon the tree that hides the forest? Because let's be clear: all practices involving an animal are targeted by ethical and moral questions. The last press release from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), an influential organization throughout the world, was entitled "The urgency of banning equestrian events at the Olympic Games"! The association in particular quotes the euthanasia of Jet Set, a Swiss event horse, at the end of the cross-country and integrates the bloody images of Kilkenny, Cian O'Connor’s gray mount, and calls upon the International Olympic Committee to remove dressage, eventing and show jumping from now on. 

So now it’s not the IOC that is scrutinizing our sport. Having already been in the Olympic Games’ hot seat since London in 2012, because it was too expensive, time-consuming and not profitable enough in terms of visibility (hence, let's not forget, the reshuffling of the equestrian sport format in Tokyo), here it is at center stage for reasons we could have done without. This time, we’re faced with a society that doesn’t understand our practices. And it’s not interested in the debate about three-person teams or the absence of the drop-score. It’s urgent that each player in equestrian sports open their eyes, that they become aware of the importance of showing the general public the best of our sport: the horse-human relationship. It’s up to everyone to put it forward that more than performance and the quest for a medal, it is the journey with the animal that is important. Let’s not forget that Tokyo was the occasion on which we were ushering in the arrival of new Olympic sports, which logically induces the suppression of other, older disciplines. At the end of Rio, the IOC, by asking the FEI to review the format of equestrian events, had asked the insidious question "What future is there for equestrian sports at the Olympics? Today, all society is asking this question...

Featured photo © FEI/Christophe Tanière

AuthorMyriam Rousselle