The Trail to Tokyo: What’s the Deal with Composite Teams?

Tiziana Realini and Toubleau de la Ruiere help the Swiss team to the final qualification spot at Boekelo. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

With the Nations Cup finale at Military Boekelo behind us, it’s easy to think of the Tokyo team line-up as being set in stone now – after all, the final, much-discussed ticket was awarded at the Dutch event to Switzerland, the highest-placed non-qualified team on the final series standings. For all those who haven’t made it happen this year, that’s just tough luck and an early start to the next Olympic cycle, right? Well, maybe not so much. In this primer, we’re going to look at composite teams – the backdoor route to qualifying as a nation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

First of all, though, let’s refresh our memories of the teams that are going, and how they managed to secure their spots:

  • Japan – automatically qualifies as the host nation
  • Great Britain – WEG 2018
  • Ireland – WEG 2018
  • France – WEG 2018
  • Germany – WEG 2018
  • Australia – WEG 2018
  • New Zealand – WEG 2018
  • Poland – Special Qualifier for Group C (Central, Eastern Europe and Central Asia) at Baborówko
  • China – Special Qualifier for Groups F and G (Africa, the Middle East, South-East Asia, and Oceania) at Saumur
  • Thailand – Special Qualifier for Groups F and G (Africa, the Middle East, South-East Asia, and Oceania) at Saumur
  • United States – the Pan-American Games 2019
  • Brazil – the Pan-American Games 2019
  • Sweden – the FEI European Championships 2019
  • Italy – the FEI European Championships 2019
  • Switzerland – the FEI Nations Cup 2019

With their qualifications in the bag, each of these teams now has an important job. They need to provide an NOC Certificate of Capability to the FEI by the 31st of December, or they’ll forfeit their place.

Sweden qualified for Tokyo at the European Championships, though a victory in the Nations Cup series showed the value of hedging one’s bets. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

So what, exactly, is a Certificate of Capability? Basically, it’s a list of at least three qualified combinations, which proves that the country has sufficient strength, depth, and quality to actually field a team by the time the Olympics rolls around. These combinations don’t have to be the ones that end up going to the Games, they can just be any three combinations – as long as they’re qualified.

Here’s where it can start to get a bit confusing. The window of opportunity for gaining the qualifications for the Certificate of Capability is different to the window of opportunity for gaining individual qualifications for the actual Games – for the Certificate, those results can be taken from last year’s World Equestrian Games up until December 31st of this year. It’s important to note that no results earned earlier than January 1st of 2019 will be eligible for actually qualifying a horse and rider combination for the Olympics theselves – these results can only be used to secure the team quota.

Most of the teams with tickets don’t have to worry about this – the major eventing nations, of course, have multiple combinations qualified, and many high-profile riders are qualified several times over. (We see you, Chris Burton and Kazuma Tomoto, with your six and four qualified horses, respectively!) But some of the developing nations will be feeling the pressure, and there are two in particular that we’ll be taking a closer look at here.

Alex Hua Tian and Don Geniro at Saumur. Ouest Image.

Something that’s worth acknowledging is that Olympic team tickets were handed out at quite a wide spectrum of levels. The WEG, for example, is a CCI5*-L for qualification purposes, while the European Championships and Baborówko are held at CCI4*-L. The Nations Cup series is largely held at CCI4*-S, although the finale at Boekelo is a CCI4*-L, but the Pan-American Games and the Group F and G qualifier at Saumur? They were held at CCI3*-L.

What does this mean, in real-world terms? First of all, it means that we can introduce new flags to the sport, which is a major priority of both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the FEI. Conversely, though, it also means that qualified teams aren’t necessarily capable teams, as far as the ruling is concerned. There are four nations that qualified through CCI3*-L competition – the United States will have no problem fulfilling the quota by December 31st, and Brazil will just scrape through too, despite being conspicuous only by their absence at many of the major competitions this year. But China and Thailand? Well, they’ve got some work to do.

Before we dive into these two teams – the only two not to have the minimum of qualified combinations – let’s go over the Minimum Eligibility Requirements, or MERs, for Tokyo qualification.

  • Qualification must be achieved as a combination
  • The eligibility period for results to count for the Certificate of Capability is WEG 2018 – December 31st, 2019
  • The eligibility period for results to count for a combination to actually be qualified to go to Tokyo is January 1st, 2019 – June 1st 2020
  • Combinations must achieve an MER at both a CCI4*-S and a CCI4*-L, or they can achieve a standalone MER at CCI5*-L
  • An MER, or qualifying result, must include a dressage score of 55% or better (penalty score 45 or below), a clear cross-country round with 30 or fewer time penalties (if at four-star) or 40 or fewer time penalties if at five-star, and a showjumping round with 16 or fewer jumping penalties
  • The combination can knock one frangible, earning 11 penalties, and still use the result as an MER. A second 11 penalties, a 15, or a 20 will render the result invalid for qualifying purposes

The State of the Nation: China

China has 2/3 riders qualified ahead of the December 31st deadline. These are:

  • Alex Hua Tian. China’s first Olympic eventer – Tokyo will be his third Games – was the lynchpin of the team that qualified at Saumur, where he finished second with Don Geniro. He and The Don picked up their CCI4*-S qualifying result at Ballindenisk in April, following it up with a CCI4*-L qualifying result at Camphire in July. For the purposes of the CoC, Alex’s WEG mount Ballytiglea Vivendi is also qualified, while Ballbreaker SD and PSH Convivial have each picked up their CCI4*-S qualifying results, but both need their CCI4*-L ones.
  • Liang Ruiji. Also part of the Saumur team, Liang isn’t just qualified for Tokyo in eventing – he’s also qualified for showjumping. Alongside these two endeavours, he finds the time to compete in international endurance. Liang, who’s based with Marc Rigouts, hadn’t competed higher than CCI3*-S before this year, but with top horse Crackerjack, he got his CCI4*-S (Millstreet) and CCI4*-L (Sopot) qualifying results on his first attempt at either level.

There are three riders we need to be keeping a close eye on as we head into the last couple of European events of the season. Each of them needs a CCI4*-L qualifying result before the year wraps. Here are the names you need to know…

  • Sun Huadong. Based with Dutch superstar Tim Lips, Sun has been hard at work to try to get his qualifications banked. Although Sun was part of the Saumur team with Lady Chin V’T Moerven Z, and although he got his CCI4*-S qualifying result with her at Strzegom in April, they were eliminated in their CCI4*-L attempt at the same venue in June, and then again when they resurfaced for Ballindenisk in September. Now, Sun is turning his attention to new ride Brent, who was campaigned by Tim until June. The duo fast-tracked their way to four-star with some top-ten placings along the way, and picked up their CCI4*-S qualifying result at Montelibretti this month. Now, they need to get their CCI4*-L – and there’s only one chance left for them to do so before the end of the year. (More on this below!)
  • Ciren Bianba. Ciren wasn’t part of the Saumur team – he was busy spending this year learning the ropes of eventing. Before 2019, the international showjumper had only evented a handful of times internationally – one in 2009, twice in 2014, and twice in 2018, to be exact. This season, he’s gone from CCI2*-S to CCI4*-S. On his first CCI4*-S attempt, which was at Waregem with the former Mathieu Lemoine ride Tropic d’Heauville, he picked up a qualifying result – but they were eliminated from their sole CCI4*-L attempt at Montelibretti this month when he took a tumble.
  • Yingfeng Bao. Yingfeng was also part of the Saumur team, although he failed to complete the competition. You might have spotted him out and about purely by dint of his horse – he rides the former Andrew Nicholson mount Teseo. Also based with Tim Lips, Yingfeng has had a few false starts this season, but after a few attempts, he picked up his CCI4*-S qualifying result at Montelibretti this month. We foresee another Team Lips trip to Italy before the year is out.

The State of the Nation: Thailand

Like China, Thailand has 2/3 combinations in the bag ahead of the deadline. These are…

  • Korntawat Samran. Korntawat was a member of the Saumur team with Luminous, but it’s Uster de Chanay who he’s qualified with. They got their CCI4*-S at Strzegom this month, and then their CCI4*-L at Montelibretti – a bold move, but a valid one, as there was just over ten days between the competitions, as per FEI rules. Korntawat, in keeping with a theme, was only really an old one-star rider before this season – but basing himself with Maxime Livio has allowed the 21-year-old a quick trajectory up the levels.
  • Weerapat Pitakanonda. ‘Bomb’, as he’s known to his pals, competed up to CCI3*-S a couple of times before this year, but has also put in the work to get the job done – he splits his time between his home in Thailand, Maxime Livio‘s base in France, and Sam Griffiths‘ UK yard. He managed his qualifying results with Chateau de Versailles M2S on his first attempts at each level – they picked up their CCI4*-S at Strzegom in August and their CCI4*-L at Sopot in September.

There’s really only one other rider who can qualify before the end of the year – Supanut Wanakool, who was on the Saumur team, lost the ride on Tzar of Dreams to Korntawat, and then to Arinadtha, after an unlucky run of performances. So all hopes rest on…

  • Arinadtha Chavatanont. Also based with Maxime Livio, Arinadtha was the highest-placed member of the Thai team at Saumur, finishing 12th with Boleybawn Prince. The horse is hugely experienced, having been campaigned by Dirk Schrade and Maxime, who still intermittently competes him. Although the rider, who also competes in international showjumping and dressage, was only competing at CCI2*-L before this year, she picked up her CCI4*-S qualifying result on her first run at Strzegom in August. The following month, the pair were on track to nail down their CCI4*-L qualifying result at Sopot, but Boleybawn Prince was withdrawn at the final horse inspection. At Strzegom this month, they fell across the country in the CCI4*-L. They’ll need to head to Italy next month – and everything will ride on this one result.

What are the remaining options?

Our Chinese and Thai competitors are all based in Europe, so at this point, their options are pretty limited – there are two four-star competitions before the year ends, and only one will be of any use. Le Pouget in France (November 13-17) will host a CCI4*-S, while Pratoni in Italy (November 14-17) will host both a CCI4*-S and a CCI4*-L, which we can expect to see our unqualified riders entered in.

What happens if they don’t pull it off?

China’s chances are looking strong enough – if all three of their unqualified riders head to Pratoni, the odds are that one of them will pick up an MER, and de facto head honcho Tim Lips is confident about their chances. But Arinadtha Chavatanont will need a bit of luck, a cool head for pressure, and the ride of her life to make her final run count for Thailand – plus, Boleybawn Prince will need to be feeling well enough to run after his fall earlier this month. There’s a huge margin for error – and it’s important to understand the next steps if the deadline isn’t met.

If December 31st rolls around and Thailand, for example, still only have two riders qualified, they won’t be able to submit their Certificate of Capability, which means their team ticket will be rescinded and they’ll be given an individual place instead. The team ticket will then be reallocated to what’s called a composite team.

A composite team is decided, simply, by Olympic rankings. Each of the unqualified nations is given an aggregate score, which is decided by adding together the rank of the three best-placed athletes from that nation. The country with the lowest score – that is, the highest-ranked athletes – gets the spot, assuming that country has at least three combinations with the sufficient qualifying results.

For example, country A, B, and C are unqualified for the Olympics, but a composite spot has opened up. Country A’s best-placed riders are 5th, 7th, and 10th on the Olympic rankings, giving them an aggregate score of 22. Country B’s are 3rd, 11th, and 13th, giving them an aggregate score of 27. Country C’s are 2nd, 9th, and 12th, giving them an aggregate score of 23. Country A takes the team spot.

There’s plenty of time for rankings to change before the end of the year, and, indeed, before February, which is when composite teams will be awarded if necessary, but we’ve crunched the numbers to see who would get the spot if it was decided on current standings. Will it be the Dutch, who tried so hard to claim their spot at their home nation final? How about the Belgians, who so nearly managed it despite a huge disadvantage? Maybe the Canadians, whose podium finish at the Pan-Ams was so bittersweet?

Nope. The Russians take this, on an aggregate score of 218, made up by Aleksandr Markov (19th in the global Olympic rankings), Valery Martyshev (26th), and Andrey Mitin (173rd). The Dutch would beat them, in theory – their top three rankings put them on a final score of 148 – but the top two rankings are held by Tim Lips, and the ruling specifies different athletes. This forces them to count Tim and Bayro, fourth in the world, but skip Eclips, 60th. Counting Merel Blom and Ceda (84th) and Ilonka Kluytmans and Image of Roses (192nd) puts them on a current ranking of 280. Sadly for the Dutch, this isn’t even enough to allow them to sneak in if a second composite team slot becomes available – although for poor Tim, who is so heavily involved with the Chinese riders, it would probably seem a strange sort of victory to take their place, anyway. The second spot, on current rankings, would go to Belarus, who climbed from an aggregate score of 774 to one of 225 after a clean sweep of the recent CCI4*-L at Minsk. Alexander Zelenko (70th) won it, Aliaksandr Faminou (77th) finished second, and Maryna Ivanova (78th) finished third in the class, which had 15 starters.

But this is all only a rough guide – after all, so much changed for Belarus in one competition. Our advice? Keep a very, very close eye on Pratoni – we certainly will be.