With the running of the equestrian events of London 2012 now consigned to history, the controversy leading up to the choice of Greenwich Park as the venue for the horse competitions is now a distant memory.
In his address to last week’s National Equine Forum in London, British Equestrian Federation Chief Executive Andrew Finding told delegates why Greenwich was chosen, and gave an insight into the process to get to London 2012.
With equestrian sports at various times being at risk of being dumped from the Olympic Games, Finding said his team developed a vision to raise the global profile of horse sport and to secure it in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee (the IOC) as a sport for retention in the movement.
“Early in 2003, I stood with my small working party at General Wolfe’s statue, overlooking the World Heritage Site that makes up Greenwich Park.
“We placed three recommendations before the leaders of our Olympic disciplines. They were, in order: first, Greenwich Park, second, Horse Guards Parade and Hyde Park, and third, Regents Park. We won the bid to host the Games in Singapore in July 2005. But why was Greenwich so controversial? We struggled to communicate our argument effectively and to convey accurately the potential we saw for the venue. We also struggled in the face of some conflicted interest, the entirely understandable view that for years we have staged outstanding events at Hickstead, Badminton, Burghley and Windsor and assumptions that since ours is a country sport the Games should be staged in our traditional heartland – the countryside.
“We also faced a media campaign developed by some in the Royal Borough of Greenwich under the NOGOE banner and parts of the press determined to spin and, frankly, present appalling distortions of the truth. And, I am bound to say that the FEI, the international equestrian federation, captured the anti-Greenwich bug.”
Despite this, Finding said that Seb Coe and organising committee LOCOG were resolute. “They saw the vision and from the
outset looked upon Greenwich as one of the greatest of the iconic venues – we pressed on.
“Were we nervous? We certainly were, but our faith didn’t waiver.”
He said the team was determined to show that the sport didn’t need an “undue degree of special treatment, that it can be staged in the centre of a major global city, that it doesn’t need hundreds of acres of land, that a temporary venue is quite acceptable, that we could bring the world’s media to our show”.
“Never before have we seen so many spectators at an equestrian event in Great Britain. Over the four weeks of the Olympic and Paralympic Games we welcomed close to 400,000 people to Greenwich to witness our sport. We also wanted our athletes and officials to feel they were an integral part of the Games, to drive the benefits of home advantage and to live at the heart of the greatest show on earth. And, so they did. They loved every minute of it.”
Finding also pointed to the unprecedented success of Britain’s equestrians, taking home five Olympic and 11 Paralympic medals. “The three Olympic Gold medals came from the dressage team, the show jumping team and the individual dressage Gold came from Charlotte Dujardin; the silver from the Eventing team; and an individual bronze from Laura Bechtolsheimer.
“Never before have our dressage riders won an Olympic medal of any colour and our showjumping team last won a gold medal in Helsinki in 1952. We took 13 Olympic riders and 13 horses to the Olympic Games, 12 returned home with medals, only one missed out. That’s a remarkable strike rate. They are all heroes.”
Two weeks later, the Paralympic riders and their horses took up residence. “They were supported by the same level of professionalism as the Olympic riders. This remarkable team of five athletes, one in each of the Paralympic classifications (1a, 1b, 2, 3, and 4), won 11 medals, 5 Gold, 5 Silver and 1 Bronze. They entered 11 classes in all and won 11 medals – that’s a 100% strike rate – and it’s an astonishing achievement.
“Our Olympic and Paralympic riders topped the FEI’s medal tables winning more medals than any other nation in the world and together as a British equestrian team they won more medals in one Games than any other equestrian nation has ever won.
“Our Olympic athletes represented 2.4% of Team GB but won 10.35% of the gold medals and 7.69% of the overall medal tally. On the Paralympic front they represented 1.67% of the athletes and won 14.71% of the gold medals and 9.17% of the overall medal haul. Our athletes were simply outstanding in every regard.”
A controversial aspect of the games was that the venue and equipment as packed up and redistributed elsewhere, leaving some questioning the legacy for equestrian sport.
But Finding said “Legacy means different things to different people, for some it is bricks and mortar, stadia, tangible
and visible high performance venues.
“For others, it’s learning, education, systems, governance, coaching standards, drug-free sport, it’s profile, reputation, professionalisation, high levels of research and development, long-term financial support for further high-performance success and community support. Support for young people, for men and women and for the disabled, for new participants and those who want to return to sport.
“For many of us it’s either part or all of these things.”
He said the team’s principal legacy benefit, was to secure a long term future for our sport as part of the Olympic and Paralympic family.
“The costs of running permanent stadia in legacy mode for a single sport are very high. For us a single high performance venue would compete with those already in place. There are many disused and unsustainable Olympic facilities across the world to prove the point.
“However, we have been determined to establish new venues to meet specific needs in the London area and to improve the quality of our existing stock of high performance venues, as well as to support those riding facilities that show the greatest potential to increase levels of participation.
“With Sport England’s support the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton opened before the Games and shortly an all new centre will be opened in Greenwich to serve the needs of Hadlow College and the Greenwich community. We have invested in improvements and upgrades to a range of riding facilities both within London and further afield. We will be investing in further facility upgrades where we can be confident that those upgrades will support more people riding for the first time, and through our “Take Back the Reins” programme, and our new initiative “Trot to be Trim”.
“With Sport England’s continuing support we will invest where we can be certain that we will increase the levels of participation, thus using the Games to inspire yet more activity. We must and will reduce the waiting lists for people with disabilities. Over 24,000 disabled people ride in over 500 clubs and yet we are not able to satisfy the demand and will increase the opportunities for more through a newly funded accessibility scheme.
We also intend to increase progressively our investment in the existing stock of high performance centres in support of our elite riders at venues that are well located and meet demand. We will pay special attention to the needs of our Paralympian riders.”
Finding also said that the British Equestrian Team would do into the 2016 Rio Olympics with a well developed high-performance system. “Over the last decade our systems, our governance work, our coaching programmes, our application of science in support of both horses and humans and the education of our people have made an immeasurable difference in the way we compete on the world stage.”
He said that last month Hartpury College had announced substantial increases of up to 35% in applications for a range of their courses. Russell Marchant, the Principal, said “When I speak to young people it’s clear that the Olympics has had a big impact and opened their eyes to the possibility of building a career in the sport or equine industries.”
In closing, finding quoted FEI president Princess Haya: “It’s been a busy and wonderful year for equestrian sport – including one of the greatest sporting events of the 21st century, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. They were the best Equestrian Games ever.”