On the Ground in Versailles: Everything We Learned at the Operational ‘Test Event’

A view down the Grand Canal from the front of the Chateau de Versailles. The arena will be situated at the very back end of the estate, abutting the end of the Canal. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s a bright, sunny day at Versailles, the palatial former seat of Louis XIV, France’s Sun King – so sunny, that at 9 a.m., the heat is beating its way through the thick avenues of historic oak and chestnut trees and the gilding, visible in the distance adorning so much of the chateau and its countless fountains, is shining bright enough that you could probably use it to signal passing planes over Paris.

It’s an extraordinary spot to find yourself on any given day. As the largest and most opulent of Paris’s royal residences (a memento of a monarchy that ended, mostly, in guillotines, though whether they’ll work that bit of history into a jump at next year’s Olympics remains very much to be seen), the Chateau de Versailles isn’t just one of the most beautiful, capacious estates in the world, it’s also among the most popular. With 15,000,000 estimated annual visitors, it’s a must-visit destination — and for horse folks, its status has been raised indelibly over the course of the current Olympic cycle.

Though a number of impressive venues, including Chantilly and Fontainebleau, were put forward as potential hosts for the equestrian disciplines at next year’s Paris Olympics, due to begin July 26, 2024, Versailles was ultimately chosen as the most emblematic of a crucial juncture in the country’s rich cultural history. And that, of course, has always been as important to the Games as sport itself – even if, in the case of Versailles, it’s come at a cost of roughly €27,000,000.

But that not at all insignificant sum of money has done a few things. First of all, it’s allowed the Paris 2024 organising committee to plot out a truly horse-friendly Games — more details on this to follow, so keep reading — and, too, it’s ensured that the UNESCO World Heritage site, and its abundance of deeply historic and important flora, can be preserved, without limiting access to those tourists and locals who make such cherished use of the site all year ’round.

And on this sunny summer’s morning? We’re here ourselves, by invitation of the Paris 2024 organising committee and the FEI, to see firsthand exactly what work is being undertaken — and to get the first glimpses of horses in action in the park, too, as the operational test event gets underway.

Welcome to the ‘backstage’ area of Versailles’ cross-country course – and turf that is being protected from harm a year out from the Games themselves. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Our day begins, not at the chateau end of the estate, but over two kilometres across from it, at the ‘Grille Royale’, a quiet entryway at the far end of the enormously long Grand Canal. Down here, you’d never know you were in one of the busiest tourist attractions in the world; there’s a small, scarcely-used road leading in, a single, unmarked gate, and then just trees, greenery, and, in the distance, the view of Versailles that we all know so well.

But while all’s quiet on the western front right now, in twelve months’ time, this’ll be a hive of hustle and bustle. We’re standing on the site of the ‘back of house’ area, where athletes, grooms, horses, and support teams will conduct all their business except the competition itself. While it’s a greenfield site at the moment, there’s already an extensive amount of work that’s been done to ensure the major build, which will begin next month, goes smoothly.

Lorick Joseph, general manager of the site for Paris 2024, takes us on a visual tour of what’s to come – starting with a hotel for grooms and vets, being constructed alongside the airy stabling along a quiet avenue along the treeline. Here, too, he explains, is where the day-to-day working areas will be — the schooling arena, the lunging pens, and, further along and in a specially set and maintained stretch of terrain, a 600 to 800m gallop track. One priority for the site’s team, he explains, is proximity: even the lorries will be parked very close by, ensuring that all support staff have everything they need as close to hand as possible to allow the whole competition to run smoothly — and to allow the quick, easy, and safe transfer in and out of horses, who will vacate the premises at the close of each competition before the next discipline’s batch of competitors moves in, so as to minimise biosecurity risks.

Along another avenue, or allee, in this back of house area is another batch of working facilities, which will no doubt include drug testing areas, spaces for bodywork, and so on, but will also house lounges and hospitality areas for support staff and riders to make use of.

As we get closer to the site of the main arena, which is set to house 20,000 spectators, we come to the end of the primary back-of-house area and move into the media back-of-house. The arena will be flanked on three sides by seating, leaving the front end open to include the view down the Canal to the Chateau, and behind the middle of these grandstands are the media centres and broadcast hubs, where coverage of the Games will be produced without necessitating an hour-plus journey to the main Games media centre in Paris proper.

Here’s a composite image showing the full set-up as it’s planned:

The ‘back of house’ area, with the Grille Royale to the right hand side, the stabling and working areas on the ‘allee’ in the upper right-hand corner, and a view of the arena and main water jump at the tail end of the canal. Photo courtesy of Paris 2024.

And another, from an angle that shows how all this relates to the location of the Chateau itself.

A different angle of the ‘back of house’, showing the view down towards the canal. Photo courtesy of Paris 2024.

One of the things that you might find most striking about these images is how thickly bunched the trees on the estate are. With its protected status, you’d also be right in thinking that these trees absolutely cannot be removed or damaged in the process of putting on the Olympics. Similarly protected? The ground itself. Those two things tie into one another intrinsically; while any good course designer can mastermind the slalom-style passages and creative turning exercises needed to wend a course through areas of parkland and woodland, incorporating plenty of straightaways through established pathways, it’s often another thing entirely to ensure any consistency at all to the footing when doing so.

But Paris’s organising team has done their research here. They know that one of the major risk factors for equine injury while on a cross-country course is a change in going, and so one of the earliest tasks they undertook with course designer Pierre le Goupil was to plot out the route the 5.3km cross-country course would cover. Then, they installed metal gates and ropes to keep the public off these tracks, before undertaking an extensive stripping, draining, and reseeding job to ensure that the entirety of the course is covered with a denser-than-average, robust species of grass that’ll hold up to wear and tear and guarantee a greater degree of consistency.

Here’s a closer look at the planned route through the estate, which will allow 40,000 spectators to enjoy cross-country day on July 28, 2024:

The map of the cross-country track that’s been extensively prepped for 2024, with the chateau on the right-hand side and the back of house area on the left.

If you rewind to the 2012 Olympics in London, you might remember that the equestrian sports, similarly, were held on a piece of protected parkland – Greenwich Park, to be precise, with its Royal Observatory and residence and National Maritime Museum framing proceedings. To get around damaging the turf there, the organisers built the arena on a raised platform — but while that approach was considered for Versailles, the organisers here have ultimately gone with a different tactic. In late September, they’ll cut the top layer of turf — about 20cm deep — from the area upon which the arena and grandstands will be built, allowing for a temporary, stable foundation to be set into the space, and taking out of the equation any sloping ground. Then, the turf itself will be preserved and recorded, using GPS and extensive photographs to ensure it’s very clear which sections came from which areas, so that after the Games wraps, it can be relaid and restored.

It’s a major undertaking, and one that speaks to a real labour of love surrounding the preservation of the estate of Versailles and its 2,000 acres of space. It’s also one of the primary reasons a huge portion of the ‘big build’ will be undertaken this year, because there’s simply quite a lot to do. We can expect to see the grandstands actually grand and standing by March, a quarter of a year before the Games actually begin.

But that’s not all the organising committee has arranged with Versailles’ advocates. They’ve also done extensive archaeological mapping of the areas they propose to build on, because with an estate this old – its history as a royal residence and hunting lodge alone goes back to the 1600s — there’s always a significant chance of uncovering something of major interest. Doing so mid-build could damage the find, but also put a spanner into the works of what’s being built, and so in-depth prep work has been done to avoid any such issues.

They’ve also worked together to create an artificial mound on the course, which is otherwise pretty much entirely flat. We caught a glimpse of it from a distance – it’s certainly ripe with potential for no end of interesting questions to be posed by the man who created such a clever, tough track at this month’s European Championships.

The reinforced mound that’ll afford further possibilities for interesting questions on cross-country.

There are also several water jumps being built on the site, because using the canal itself as a water complex is out of the question — the depth can’t be managed safely, the footing isn’t designed for safe sport, and the potential both for damage and injury is too high. But one of these water jumps is particularly exciting: it sits at the open end of the main arena, right at the tail end of the canal, and will no doubt provide the images we think of as emblematic of Paris 2024 for decades to come. Here’s how that’s looking:

The ‘main’ water complex begins to take shape.

With all this useful information in mind, it’s time for the day to really begin. We’re used to seeing full test events held a year or so prior to the Olympics, ordinarily at a level below, which allow the facilities — often purpose-built just for the Games — to be put into action with enough time to action any changes needed. But this year, Paris has opted out, partly because of budgeting, but also, in part, because running a full event at Versailles a year out would be to intrusive to be doable. Instead, much of the operational logistics have been put to the test at Fontainebleau – but this week, a full delegation of global chefs d’equipe, Pierre le Goupil, the Paris organising committee, the FEI, and our small group of media representatives bore witness to the sole round of testing happening on the site itself.

Four riders — young riders Justine Bonnet, Camille Collet Vidal, and Sophie Souvestre and Republican Guard Fabrice Lucas — gathered on site with a simple task. They’d pick up a hand-gallop in a small warm-up area, cross the Canal via a pontoon, travel up along one of the fully-prepared areas of turf alongside the canal, pop two jumps, turn, and return to where they began via the pontoon. This was a simple test, and one that didn’t take long, but it was crucially important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, while not all the terrain and tracks of the course have reached their final preparation stages, the ground covered is, in effect, totally ready, and so running horses at speed along it allowed the organising team to check how the new grass responded to the trauma of hooves, and it gave them a chance to check the ‘give’ of the footing, too. It also let them test how they’ll go about affixing fences safely, without undue damage. And, finally — and arguably most importantly — it gave them a chance to really see if the pontoon situation was going to work.

Kai Steffen Meier, chef d’equipe for newly-qualified Belgium, watches on as the terrain test unfolds. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Much has been made of Paris’s pontoons in pre-Games press material, and in person, they’re impressive. They’ve been hired from a company that specialises in these kinds of river crossings, but even for them, it’s a new ask – the Paris committee is certain that at 63m, they are the longest temporary bridges ever used in equestrian sport. In testing this one, they weren’t just testing the stability of them (very, very important, and also, happily, very sound — Sam Griffiths observed that “you can’t even see the water ripple when a horse crosses over”), they were also testing the efficiency with which they could be installed and then dismantled. Plus, of course, the surface on top — what to use, how to lay it, how much should be installed. It’s all the fine details that add up to a happy end result.

Horses and riders cross the pontoon after finishing their test rides. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The result, on the day, certainly was a happy one. Two pontoon crossings will be used in the Games proper, allowing for access to more of the parkland (and a jolly nice view for riders as they cross, too). Interestingly, though, it wasn’t just the basic functionality of the pontoon itself that was put to the test; as we arrived at the Canal’s four-way junction, we spotted a number of emergency services in the water itself, looking, at first, as though they were dredging it.

What they were actually doing, though, was a repetition: they’ve been practicing how they’ll deal with the very unlikely situation of a horse falling in the canal, whether that’s by somehow getting over the high pontoon railing or slipping over the edge while cantering alongside it. It’s a multi-person operation that’ll involve swimming in to rescue the rider and reroute the horse to one of several sturdy temporary ramps that have been installed simply for this purpose — and though they hope that the time and money spent will never actually be needed, it’s reassuring to know they appear to have a plan for every eventuality.

Part of the operational test: repetitions of rescue routines.

Étienne Thobois, Director General of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, was delighted with the outcome of the day.

“It’s important for us to have this test session with the delegations who are here today to look at the quality of the course on a technical level, because it’s fundamental in the context of cross-country. We imagine 40,000 people in the park to cheer on the athletes will be an extraordinary moment.”

So, too, was Catherine Pégard, Versailles’s (democratic, these days) head honcho, who enthused that she was “amazed by what we saw this morning; we are amazed by what the horses will offer as a spectacle in this iconic setting of the Palace of Versailles. And then we are very proud of the teams of the Château de Versailles who have worked hard to make these Olympic Games in Versailles possible. We are very proud to see what was a dream come true for many and what I believe will be among the great memories, one of the great images of these Olympic Games.”

The view from the bridge: looking at the Chateau de Versailles from the middle of the pontoon. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Finally, Tim Hadaway, the FEI’s own Olympic Director, says, “I think the very fact that it’s got to be a temporary venue, everything that will be built here next year for the Games will, of course, have to be taken away afterwards. So it’s a massive logistical exercise of putting all of that in place, and crucially, to do that in a way that a) doesn’t impact the environment, this very special environment, in the long term, but also in a way that respects the everyday users of this park. And it’s a living, breathing park that enjoys hundreds, thousands, of visitors every day from around the world, to walk, to cycle, and to use the boats on the lake. And the important thing is not to compromise that any more than is necessary; to keep that period of disruption as short as possible. The teams here working on this are respecting these challenges and working to come up with the solutions to ensure that the impact both from the environment perspective, and the user’s perspective is kept to an absolute minimum.”

Roll on Paris, we say.

The entrance point onto the pontoon crossing.

Test riders putting the turf into action during the test event.

Here’s where it’ll all happen: delegations gather on the site of the back of house area at Paris 2024.

What dreams are made of! Welcome to Versailles.

EN’s pre-Paris coverage is brought to you with support from Zoetis Equine. 

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