Spruce Meadows·Analysis

Road to the Olympic Games: Changing the Olympic equestrian equation

Recently equestrian sport, which includes; dressage, jumping and eventing, has had to deal with rule alterations which are ostensibly aimed at keeping one of the oldest Olympic pursuits from becoming extinct at the Games.

Rule changes aim to keep one of the Olympics' oldest pursuits from extinction

Eric Lamaze of Canada, shown here riding Fine Lady 5 during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, voiced his displeasure with Olympic equestrian rule changes. (File/Getty Images)

Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes' journeys on and off the field of play. Here's what to look for on this weekend's show on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca.

The one thing that you can count on in sport is that the rules change constantly.

It's how the games we play become modernized and more accessible to more people around the world.  

The experts tend to refer to this phenomenon as universality or inclusiveness. The theory being that the deeper the competitive pool, the more attractive the sport is globally – thus ensuring its long term survival.

  • Watch: Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping — Saturday at 12 p.m. ET (CBC TV, CBCSports.ca)

Recently, equestrian sport – which includes dressage, jumping and eventing – has had to deal with rule alterations which are ostensibly aimed at keeping one of the oldest Olympic pursuits from becoming extinct at the Games.

Simply put, the rule changes have to do with the team events in each of the three disciplines. There will now be three, not four, horse-rider combinations and there will be no more drop scores.

The proponents of these changes argue that they will eliminate complicated mathematical formulas which go towards determining the winner and thus make the sport more understandable and attractive to a wider audience.

Universal field of play

They also suggest that the elimination of the margin for error for horse-rich nations will open the sport up to more countries and afford them a greater chance of being competitive. The competitive field of play will thus become more universal. In the past, European and North American countries have dominated horse sport at the Olympics.

In the end the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) adopted the proposed changes by a wide margin – only 11 of 107 national horse federations voted against them. But included in that group were France and Germany, who won Olympic jumping gold and bronze, respectively, in Rio de Janeiro.

It is also clear that a significant number of decorated athletes opposed the changes – including every member of the Canadian show jumping squad that finished fourth at the most recent Olympics. The problem is the managers at Equestrian Canada trumped the athletes in this case and voted to support the new vision.

'Makes no sense for Canada'

"Given the success we've had under the current format, it makes no sense for Canada to vote in favour of changing to three-man teams," said Eric Lamaze, who has won individual gold and bronze and team silver over the course of his Olympic career. "I am extremely disappointed and feel our national federation did not respect the wishes of its athletes."

This situation is not new.

When it comes to sport the successful players attempt to protect their territory.  

They like to keep winning.  

Sometimes more competition can threaten their livelihoods or at least their reputations. As is often the case, inviting new kids to play a game means they might steal your thunder and replace you as top dog.

But it can also be argued that changing the rules in order to make it more attractive to a wider audience can threaten the integrity of the competition or change the nature of the game.

Watering down the product?

While it becomes more understandable to more people, it can become less recognizable to the purists. After all, at the last three Olympics the equestrian sports have undeniably produced full grandstands and exciting competition across the board.

Tinkering by watering down the competitive product may backfire, suggest the opponents of the changes.

"I think this would ruin our sport and the excitement of the sport," said Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, a German Olympic medallist. "I think it would be a disaster for our competition."

Still, the changes are going ahead and are likely to be approved by the International Olympic Committee, thus paving the way for equestrian sport to remain on the Games program for the foreseeable future.

"This was a really important vote for the future of our sport if we are to increase universality," said FEI president Ingmar De Vos. "It opens the door to countries that could only see the Olympics as a distant dream."

Equestrian sport first appeared at the Olympics in 1900 and was once only open to "gentlemen" who were commissioned officers in the military.

Breaking down gender barriers

In 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, women earned the right to compete in dressage. And beginning in 1956 at Melbourne, men and women began to compete as equals on the same field of play in eventing and jumping as well. Equestrian sport has been a pioneer in breaking down gender barriers at the Olympics.

The bottom line is that resisting change which makes sport more universally appealing can be viewed as flawed thinking.

After all, does equestrian really want to go the way of Basque Pelota, croquet and compulsory figures in skating?

Or does it want to evolve with the times and stay in the Games?


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