Olympic fairness and animal welfare flouted in Tokyo

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, introduced the modern pentathlon at the 5th Olympiad in Stockholm in 1912 (modeled on what a soldier might have to do in a war situation – shoot, fence, ride , swim and run – he could never have imagined that this action-packed and exciting sport to watch would suffer a serious self-inflicted injury before our eyes at Tokyo 2020.

As an athlete who has participated as an equestrian in five Olympic Games (one as a show jumping athlete, one as an equestrian team manager and three as a modern pentathlon coach), I had tears in my eyes on August 6 at Ajinomoto Stadium as he witnessed the Olympian principle of fairness and animal welfare trampled on in the equestrian section of the Modern Pentathlon.

John Ledingham was Ireland’s equestrian coach for the modern pentathlon at Tokyo 2020

What I witnessed should never have happened; he brought sport into disrepute; it caused enormous damage to the victims (human and equine); that can never happen again. Having said that, I don’t want to take anything away from the incredible performances of the medalists. Olympic champion Kate French is one of the best athletes of all sports in Tokyo.

While some have chosen to blame the athletes for what happened in the equestrian section, it is important to set the record straight and, above all, to defend the equestrian skills of the sportswomen who gave their all but failed. been denied, after five years of careful preparation, the opportunity to play on what should have been the fairest rules of the game in the world.

Mentally strong

In modern pentathlon, athletes do not ride their own horses; they are given horses to ride, and although I appreciate that the selection of horses is a lottery, it is essential that the horses selected by the organizers of the Modern Pentathlon for the riding phase have experience and a track record proven in competition, are mentally strong, and be used to being ridden by different riders.

Everywhere you go in the Olympic Village, and in every stadium, you see the posters of the fair sport motto written in large letters. It is such a shame that the organizers of the modern pentathlon did not see fit to take these words to heart as there was nothing right in drawing a horse that is clearly not fit to compete.

Saint Boy had already refused to jump three times for Russian Gulnaz Gubaydullina. This horse clearly did not want to be in the competition ring

The ability of a horse to perform in competition relies on absolute confidence in the rider. In modern pentathlon, the rider first sits on the horse for 10 minutes of flat work to explore the partnership. Then they have another 10 minutes to jump five obstacles in the warm-up ring. Then they go to the competition arena to jump a course of 12 obstacles including a triple combination and a double combination (a total of 15 jumps at a height of 1.20m).

Although the Tokyo horses appeared to be in very good physical shape, I would seriously question the mental fitness of some of these horses for competition. I base this observation on my knowledge of horses and on what I have seen up close.

Irish Natalya Coyle when horse Constantine refused to jump in the riding section of the modern pentathlon in Tokyo.  Photograph: Bryan Keane / Inpho

Irish Natalya Coyle when horse Constantine refused to jump in the riding section of the modern pentathlon in Tokyo. Photograph: Bryan Keane / Inpho

It was the height of injustice for two highly rated medal contenders who were at the top of the standings after two disciplines having seen their hopes and dreams dashed by receiving horses so clearly unsuitable for competition.

Scoring of points

Former German world champion Annika Schleu, who finished fourth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, led the scoring with an impressive 24 points when she entered the show jumping arena. His medal chance ended, however, when his horse, Saint Boy, stopped and refused to advance before crossing the start line!

That’s when German trainer Raisner hit the horse. The selection of a mentally unfit horse to compete is bad enough; what Raisner did added injury after injury. For me, a rider and horse lover all my life, Modern Pentathlon, a sport that I also love, had hit rock bottom!

Raisner’s shameful intervention happened before Schleu crossed the starting line, and the judges were slow to ring the bell for his turn to begin because they could see that what had happened was wrong. his fault.

Saint Boy had already refused to jump three times for Russian Gulnaz Gubaydullina. This horse clearly did not want to be in the competition ring. If he had refused four times, he would have been eliminated and would not have been presented a second time with Schleu. Instead, because he became stationary and refused to go forward, the deadline was reached and he was technically eliminated and, therefore, could not be replaced by Schleu.

Irish Natalya Coyle is a three-time Olympian and she is an excellent experienced rider. Coyle was ninth at London 2012, sixth at Rio 2016 and was four points away from a bronze medal in the equestrian section in Tokyo after the fencing and swimming competitions.

In Tokyo, we saw athletes reduced to tears in utter frustration at the unfairness of horse selection

In Coyle’s 20-minute warm-up, his horse, Constantine, appeared to be both mentally and physically in good shape. He and Coyle had formed a good bond.

During the first eight obstacles in the jumping arena, the rider and horse showed a good partnership except for a hit to the front rail on the fourth gate, but when the horse came to the ninth barrier, he stopped. Coyle’s experience got him over this, but disaster struck! Constantine again stopped twice on the suit, as he had done with a previous pilot (Alise Fakhrutdinova from Uzbekistan). Coyle had to go around the combined obstacle, then the horse jumped the last two obstacles with ease.

Combinations

It is clear that Constantine has a hard time skipping combinations and should never have been selected; nor should Saint Boy. Both of these horses were pulled from the men’s final on August 7, further proof that they should never have been in the Olympic Horse Pool in the first place.

In Tokyo, we saw athletes reduced to tears in utter frustration at the unfairness of horse selection, horses clearly stressed out from competition, and a trainer behaving in contemptuous ways – defying the Olympic spirit and an advertisement. dismal in front of a global TV audience for what is truly a great sport.

Irish Natalya Coyle in the modern pentathlon show jumping event.  Photograph: Mike Egerton / PA

Irish Natalya Coyle in the modern pentathlon show jumping. Photograph: Mike Egerton / PA

The organizers of the modern Olympic pentathlon must revisit what happened on August 6 at the Olympic Stadium in Ajinomoto so that such a spectacle will never happen again. The Paris 2024 format will have horse riding as its first discipline, but that won’t solve anything – a radical change is needed.

As a coach, I have a responsibility to protect the mental and physical health of equine and human athletes. The Olympic organizers too.

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