Spruce Meadows and the thrill of being there

At this time of year, every year, Scott Russell's thoughts turn to Spruce Meadows — the iconic horse park on the outskirts of Calgary where he always feels the magic of covering live sport.

Iconic show jumping venue is the ideal place for covering a live event

The beauty of both the equine athletes and the surroundings at Spruce Meadows are part of the allure of the prestigious show jumping park. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

At this time of year, for the past quarter of a century, my thoughts turn to Spruce Meadows.

The iconic horse park on the outskirts of Calgary, which opens its Summer Series of show jumping events this weekend, has acres and acres of lush, green grass. Overhead, the infinite canopy of a bright, blue sky often dominates. If the weather is right, the fans in the stands can be counted in the tens of thousands.

But the wind of the foothills can also be howling and there have been blizzards and blinding rain to act as foils. This jewel of the Canadian West is known to be capricious. 

The equine athletes, magnificent beasts that they are, own the place. They stride confidently into the arena and inspire the adulation of young and old alike. At times, you can reach out and touch them. Their talent is undeniable and their physical capability can be breathtaking.       

Spruce Meadows is, for lack of a better term, the big show. And to have the chance to be here is, for a sports broadcaster, an increasingly rare and treasured thing.

Spectacular things happen in this setting. In the myriad arenas on the grounds, the finest international competition unfolds. The animals run at breakneck speed with human beings on their backs. Together they conspire to leap over impossible barriers and race against the relentless ticking of the clock. 

There are falls, crashes, recoveries and mad dashes to the wire. Someone wins. Someone loses. To watch and hear it from close at hand is one of life's great and dramatic experiences.

'A fantastic adrenaline rush'

The live, on-site broadcasting of sport is undeniably why people like me got into this business. Put simply, it's a buzz.

In this scenario there are no second takes, no going into an edit suite to finesse things, no belabouring the context of what brought you to the climax of the plot. 

As a storyteller, the chance to find yourself in this position, in this impressive setting, makes you incredibly nervous — even if you've been doing it for 25 years or more. 

It gets your heart pumping. It's television's version of a high-wire act without a safety net.

If you're not ready for it, you'll be exposed.

For people at the controls like CBC Sports' Karen Sebesta, one of the very few women who produce live sport out of a mobile, on-site truck facility in this country, it's something to relish. Split-second decisions are required and the network is counting on you to get it right while the savvy audience will unfailingly only notice your mistakes.

"Working in live sports production is a fantastic adrenaline rush," she says from a monitor-filled control room. "Being on-site at an event allows you to be the eyes and ears for the viewer consuming at home.  You get to help people understand what it feels like to be there. These are the sights and the sounds that you can only find if you are there on location."

Fans pack the grandstand by the tens of thousands for the biggest events at Spruce Meadows. (File/Getty Images)

Others on the technical crew are capturing the images and deciphering what's actually happening without the benefit of a script. 

Dozens of camera operators and the audio team, pointing bazooka-like microphones, are tracking the journey of each horse — the twists, turns, grunts and groans that breathe life into the unpredictable narrative of the event. They are an orchestra at the command of a conductor who must react but also anticipate what will happen next.

Christopher Elias has been the television director for equestrian events at the Olympic Games and has been calling the shots at Spruce Meadows for 25 seasons. He's taking risks every time he barks an order over the intercom.

"It's the challenge of doing a show you haven't seen before," Elias says.  "As the director I'm actually creating something. I'm editing the show live with every picture I choose. You've got these million-dollar horses and things can change so fast. They could get hurt. A rider could be badly injured. This is a dangerous sport. When there are 30 or 40 thousand people in the stands holding their breath, you look at the wide shot and say 'Wow… I love it.'"

Never gets old

In the same way, every time I return to Spruce Meadows, I'm struck by the grandeur of things. The flags of the world, the majestic horses from many countries, the vivid colours and the gargantuan nature of the grounds are all familiar to me. 

But each and every season, they prompt a renewed interest in the fascinating game that horse sport is.

When I arrive I always take the opportunity to walk to the centre of the dormant stadium and spin myself around. Wafting from every corner of the "International Ring" there are natural fragrances which stir something inside me. It's the freshness of the field of play. 

In advance of the event, families spread out blankets on the grassy slopes beneath the grandstand and stake out prime spots in order to be close to the action. The calculating riders pace over the pristine turf and expertly measure the puzzle of the challenge that lies ahead. You can hear a marching band, complete with horn players and drummers, warming up backstage.

A giant-sized clock tower looms at one end of the cavernous venue while at the other there is a bank — a menacing hill — that has produced its fair share of gasp-inducing disaster over the years. Horses and their mounts have tumbled down this monstrosity in terrifying fashion and many dreams have been dashed.

But cups have also been hoisted here. The crowd has roared its approval. Underdogs have prevailed against the greatest of odds. And records have been broken on this ground.

This is the not-so-blank canvas that Spruce Meadows presents every time I come to its threshold. But amidst all the trimmings there is plenty of room to paint another, unique picture in the new season.

It's the wonder of live sport broadcasting. And the chance to come here and help tell the tale of this fantastic place is an art form in itself. 

Being here, at the big show, is something I'm sure will never get old.


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House.


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