Three-Rider Olympic Format Doesn’t Add Up

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Credit: Erin Gilmore A scene like this from the 2016 Olympics isn't due to repeat in Tokyo in 2020 since the FEI has mandated three-rider teams.

Credit: Erin Gilmore A scene like this from the 2016 Olympics isn't due to repeat in Tokyo in 2020 since the FEI has mandated three-rider teams.

Last month the FEI General Assembly voted to change the Olympic equestrian format for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. The new format will include only three riders on the teams for all three equestrian events – dressage, show jumping, eventing – with no drop scores. This will mean fewer riders from each country will get to make the trip. It will also mean that, if a powerhouse team loses a combination, then weaker teams will have a better shot at the top of the podium.

In the past few decades, Olympic dressage has alternated between three-and four-rider teams, but jumping has always had four-rider teams, and eventing has even had five-rider teams that allowed for two drop scores. In Rio this past summer, the three teams each had four riders, with the top three scores to count for team medals. Other major equestrian championships usually follow the four-rider format to allow for one drop score. With horses, this just makes sense, since you don’t want to push a horse who might have a soundness issue for the sake of the rest of the team, among many other reasons.

The FEI has long been under pressure from the IOC to adjust its format in several ways: use less land (in the case of eventing); increase the numbers and diversity of federations; not allow one competitive effort to result in two medals (again, in eventing, for both team and individual medals); enhance audience interest (hence, the dressage freestyle); and streamline the events, which spread over the entire two weeks of the Games. The implied threat to the FEI was that equestrian sports might otherwise be dropped from the Games. A cap of 200 horses has also been decreed for the Tokyo Games, despite the push for more countries to take part.

The FEI vote for approval of the new format wasn’t even close, however. (The USEF voted yes, by the way.) Since then, rider groups that weren’t consulted before the vote have been speaking up. The timeline has the FEI recommendation going to the IOC in February with the final IOC decision coming in July. The FEI said the events would be “packaged in a more compact format” and thus make the events “more readily understandable” by engaging “new fans through enhanced presentation.”

Here’s the take of Ulf Helgstrand, president of the Danish National Federation: “We want excitement and more flags, and we have to make our sport more understandable. Which other sport can have a medal with an athlete that’s been disqualified? We will have much more excitement if one of the top countries or riders fails. This will give us more excitement and more flags.”

Okay, those sound like good arguments. I just know that when I watched four-rider events in dressage at the seven Olympics that I covered as a journalist, I got a lot more excited than when I watched three-rider events. While the idea of a simplified format might be more understandable to potential fans of the sport, I think the established fans of the sport are left scratching their heads.

Is the glamor of the Olympics the only way to attract new countries and new riders to the sport, and thus equestrianism at the Olympics needs to be dumbed down? And, at least in the case of jumping and eventing, will there be at a potential harm to the horses – why did it once make sense to increase the eventing teams to five horse/rider combos for the safe of safety and now reduce them to three?

The discussion for the 2020 Games will likely end this summer, but after Tokyo the debate should heat up again. I can only hope for a return to four-rider teams. I suspect, however, there will be even more tweaking and even more major adjustments. The inclusion of equestrian sports in the Olympics is vital, and bringing more interest to horse sports both around the world and in the Games are worthy goals. However, in seeking those goals, let’s also not lose sight of what makes those sports so great.

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