The Good, the Bad, and the Weird: The Olympic Hangover

I’m obviously a bit late for this final op-ed, but I have a good reason…I couldn’t get the individual medal round to work on the NBC Sports app on my TV, the same way I had watched all of the other phases. For whatever reason, the video stopped after the Team Medal Final. On Friday, I finally realized that the NBC Sports app on my computer had the full stream all the way through the Individual Final and got the closure I needed.

THE GOOD

The British Team reacts. Photo by FEI / Arnd Bronkhorst.

Dramatic Storylines: A rider who lost all her top rides and came back to win individual gold on her untested young horse? Check. A rider who switched disciplines to chase an Olympic dream for his home Olympics and spent months away from his family securing a top four finish? Check. A legendary rider who became the oldest medaling athlete for his country at his eighth Olympics? Check. An eventing superpower who has nonetheless not taken home the gold in almost five decades smashing the field and taking home a decisive victory? Check. 

Conditioning of the Horses: Everyone knew that the weather conditions in Tokyo were going to cause a lot of tired horses, and on cross-country day there were notably some horses who struggled near the end. However, every single horse who competed in the final phase seemed to have bounced back extremely admirably. While most had lost a touch of spring to their jump, not one horse looked visibly gassed. There were uncharacteristic rails, particularly through the triple combination and time absolutely played a factor. This made the stadium rounds influential without being ugly. Kudos to all of the riders who made sure their horses were prepared for the conditions.

Julia Krajewski does it all! Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Women: It was really wonderful to finally see a woman win the top individual honor in the sport. Finally!

Overall Organization: By all accounts, the Tokyo organization and execution of the eventing phases was excellent. Unlike both Rio and Tryon, there were no rumors leading up to the Games that the courses were not ready, housing was not finished, infrastructure was not complete. Undoubtedly the extra year didn’t hurt on this end of things, but regardless there was no drama regarding whether or not the venue would be ready. 

Course Design and Presentation: The show jumps were downright gorgeous. Period. Not that they have been subpar in other Games, but I found Tokyo’s stadium jump design to be thoughtful, lovely and meaningful. 

THE BAD

Switzerland’s Robin Godel and Jet Set. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Social Media Abuse of Robin Godel: It’s always tragic to lose one of our equine partners and we as a sport, as always, need to try and do better. More research into the causes and treatments of catastrophic injuries is marching forward but there is always going to be the unique challenge that horses need four legs to be weight bearing to survive. However, losing a horse on the Olympic stage is uniquely challenging these days, with the advent of social media opening up the horse’s rider and other connections to the vitriol of the general public. Online abuse is never okay. Our deepest sympathies extend to Jet Set’s connections.

Groom Accommodations at Sea Forest: Look, I don’t have much more than an email telling us that this was a problem, but it seems that no one thought about where the grooms were to sleep the night before cross-country after the horses were trailered over to the Sea Forest venue. It’s 2020/2021. Let’s make sure the most important person in the well-being of these horses is treated like a human being, please.

The Live Leaderboard: Yes, there are bigger issues than this. But let’s be real, even watching live can be hard to follow who is getting penalties, who is on course, and where penalties have occurred. An easy-to-follow live leaderboard can really enhance the viewing and a poor live scoring platform can really detract from the experience…even when you’re there at the venue, watching in person, and trying to follow all the action on our phones. This is not the only venue that struggles with this aspect and I ask the FEI and all competition venues to put some genuine thought into their live leaderboards. If those of us who are super fans are having trouble following the scoring, how can we attract new fans to the sport and expect them to understand the already-confusing scoring format?

The Poor Riding and Abuse in Modern Pentathlon: No it is not ‘our’ sport. No, it’s not even under the FEI umbrella. But the FEI needs to be pushing back hard against the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM) regarding their lax standards when it comes to horse welfare and horse/rider safety. The IOC should hear from the FEI that even though these horses are not falling under their ‘umbrella’ of horse sport, it is absolutely unacceptable for UIPM’s treatment of these horses to continue.

THE WEIRD

The U.S. Team Final Placing: Sports bring out the strongest feelings in us; elation and devastation by turns. After several cycles of experiencing devastation on cross-country day, it was a relief to not have to deal with crushing disappointment upon the completion of three clear rounds from Team USA. But instead I walk away from the Tokyo Games feeling underwhelmed. We came, we participated, we finished. Three clear cross-country rounds is great, but we ultimately finished behind a team who had cross-country penalties on two of their three riders. While one of three riders achieved their expected performance in all three phases, the other two riders both mildly underperformed in their horse’s strongest phase. Not drastically, but when other teams are hitting their expected scores across the board, it adds up. The completion feels like progress but there’s nothing much to say beyond that. 

Team Germany, gold medalists. Photo by FEI/Christophe Taniere.

The Three Score Format: I still don’t like it. But I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would. I think if cross-country had been more influential in terms of falls it might have been much more confusing but as it was, most of the top nations completed three horses and so did not have to address the substitution question. It was extremely strange to see horses that didn’t do dressage or cross country do the show jumping on the final day. And certainly the horse welfare issue regarding no drop scores did crop up in the show jumping discipline under the Irish team; Shane Sweetnam kept riding despite his horse jumping erratically after losing a shoe and eventually his mount fell through a fence. It’s only a matter of time before we see something similar in eventing.

On the other side of the coin, I thought it was really nice to see horses who had been retired or technically eliminated or even have a rider fall allowed to complete the event on the final day, albeit with significant penalty. We all spend so much time, emotion, and money on this sport that I’d be inclined to see this practice implemented through all the levels. Going forward, I’d rather see the fourth pair, marked as alternates this time, competing as an individual and the three person team allowed to sub in that rider’s total score for a penalty up until the start of the final phase. That would keep the competition true to our sport but also allow for the emotional completion of the competition by other individuals.

Michael Jung and Chipmunk FRH. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Michael Jung’s Frangible: One thing that has flown under the radar and needs a second look is the under-the-radar rule change, implemented in 2020, that a frangible pin on cross-country is 11 penalties….period. That was never part of the deal, FEI. Thanks for sneaking that in while we were all looking the other way at the wording of the flag penalty. But for that rule change, Michael Jung would have been individual Olympic gold….again. But suddenly we are going where we all feared where we’d be when the frangible penalty was enacted, having to be careful about making sure we show-jump any fence fitted with a frangible pin, which thankfully is more and more these days. This deserves a deeper dive than I can commit today but I hope the federations raise hell at the FEI rule change forum later this year.

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