Among other things, life as we know it has become a grim and constantly evolving game of” “fill in the blank”. If we don’t social distance, then ____________ will happen. If N95 masks run out, then ___________ healthcare workers could contract the virus. If we do not flatten the curve by ____________, COVID-19 will not abate.
Last week I wrote an article about spending more time with your horses while this crisis runs its course; this week the reality is that most of your boarding barns are shut down. The speed at which things change and news evolves is enough to make one’s head spin. I hope you all are hanging in there.
Which brings me to the equestrian world’s version of fill in the blank. If horse shows are shut down in the months of _______ and ________, we can get back to it in __________. If ________ show is cancelled, hopefully _________ will still be on.
Sadly, on Monday March 23rd, it got easier to fill in the blanks on the status of the biggest show in the world: the Olympic Games. Last week, the world’s major qualifiers in equestrian sport began waving the white flag. For the eventers, the Kentucky Three-Day Event will not happen. Badminton will not happen. For the show jumpers, La Baule and Rotterdam CSIO5* will not happen. For the dressage riders, Compiègne, France CDIO will not happen.
Those were all to be some of equestrian sport’s critical observation events in the lead up to selection for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. And once they began falling, a postponement on our Olympic year started to crystalize (similar scenarios have been unfolding in every single Olympic sport, of course, but since this is an equestrian website I’m focusing on these effects.) On Sunday, March 22, Canada and Australia announced that they would not send their athletes of any sport to the Olympic Games if they were held on schedule in four months. Late on Monday evening, the United States followed with a similar announcement. In my opinion, it was that pressure which all but erased the hope of Tokyo taking place this year. On Tuesday, March 24th, the IOC officially postponed the Games until 2021.
Let’s set aside the conversation of why this was necessary for public health and safety; at this point we’re all in universal agreement that it was the right move. But as a journalist, it got me thinking about the vast web of individual storylines that are now dead in the water. Our happy game of fill in the blank should have been the along the lines of, “Olympic champion _________ won by a close margin of ______.” Now what? In a normal world, equestrian sports are delicate as it is because of our all important partners. Now so many horses that have been brought along for the last four or more years with Tokyo as the ultimate goal, will be a year older and less competitive to point towards a postponed 2021 Games.
Karen Polle’s With Wings is one example. The super popular show jumper was a sure pick to represent Japan after changing her nationality in 2014, but With Wings is 17 years old. Will he be able to stay in form to jump the Olympics as an 18 year old? Eventer Arinadtha Chavatanont made history for Thailand by qualifying for Tokyo at the 2018 WEG. Her horse, Boleybawn Prince, is 16 this year, and would face the same age battling questions.
And then there are the storylines around the riders themselves. Eric Lamaze recovered from brain cancer in 2019 and his comeback to winning form was one of the biggest stories of the year. He was a very likely pick to represent Canada in its individual spot for show jumping, but there’s simply no guarantee that he’ll be healthy another year on. Israeli show jumpers had qualified a team for the first time ever. The Japanese dressage team had been working their tails off in Wellington, Fla., to represent their home nation in top form.
And on and on it goes. The threads that held these athletes’ storylines together are unraveling, and yes, I realize that these losses pale to the multitude of others among the fallout from this global pandemic. You’re not wrong, but that doesn’t make it any less deflating for everyone with a tie to this level of sport. When we come out of this, as a sport and as a world, things will be unalterably changed in ways we don’t yet realize. New stories will evolve, as they always do, but just for a moment, it’s ok to mourn the 2020 stories that could have been, and now never will be.