After 48 hours of political turmoil in the UK it was comforting to learn that at least one thing is set to enjoy a period of stability. I refer to confirmation that equestrianism is in the Olympic Games until at least 2024.
The quota of 200 horses also remains for Tokyo 2020 – a major result when sailing, rowing, shooting, weightlifting and wrestling have all had their athlete quotas reduced. There is a big hint, too, that equestrian in 2028 should also be safe: the prime (and only) candidate Los Angeles has already named the location for its Olympic horse park.
It is a relief after the compromises that dressage, jumping and eventing were forced to make to remain in the Games. The trickle-down effect of a three-star cross-country will change the dynamics of eventing in particular.
The International Olympic Committee’s draft Agenda 2020 proposed that future hosts need stage only the sports of their choice – one reason why we were told two years ago that equestrian must urgently widen its appeal. But, ironically, Paris – expected to host 2024 – and Los Angeles are both in countries of immense horse heritage. France and the US would not need much persuading to find an equestrian park, or to promote the traditional competition formats.
But, er, why are we even talking about Paris and Los Angeles just yet? Normally host cities are only confirmed, amid huge fanfare, in the September seven years before the event.
The reason is that while niche sports fight for inclusion, the long-term future of the Olympics itself is far from secure. Nowadays the World Equestrian Games is not the only event so unappealing to organisers that the last-man-standing I awarded it by default. A really big issue confronting the IOC is that hardly anyone wants to mount a bid.
Paris and Los Angeles are, theoretically, still vying for 2024, but it has been agreed informally that the French capital has first dibs. In “compensation,” Los Angeles will stage 2028, with a green light to proceed on a thrift budget.
This contradiction of the Olympic charter will be ratified at an extraordinary IOC session next month. I thought this was “fake news” at first, but here it is on the IOC’s own website.
IOC president Thomas Bach says the IOC must act while it has “two big birds in the hand.” With Los Angeles allegedly needing little subsidy and no real need for new infrastructure, this gives the IOC breathing space to save hundreds of millions of dollars while pursuing longer term sponsorship and rights deals which, one assumes, will prop up whoever is bold/naïve enough to take on the summer Games of 2032.
London allegedly received only 25 per cent of the IOC’s revenues from TV. I doubt Los Angeles will feel the need to be quite so grateful for whatever titbits the IOC can spare when it has relieved them of a hosting crisis in 2028. This would not the first time Los Angeles has been in the driving seat. When the financial burden of Montreal 1976 became public, n -one else wanted to stage 1984, enabling sole contender LA to go ahead with a “budget” Games.
Twelve cities actively bid for 2004, nine for 2012. It looked to be barely half a dozen for 2024 and so flagging enthusiasm was addressed by changing the rules so that every candidate could make the final vote, instead of being knocked out at the short-listing stage.
But in July 2015, Boston withdrew from 2024 due to lack of public support. Toronto dropped out the following month for similar reasons, leaving Los Angeles, Hamburg, Rome, Budapest and Paris – still smarting from losing 2012 to London – as just five confirmed participants.
Mr Bach said he only wanted to send athletes to cities that had clear public support, but in hindsight it might have been prudent to keep schtum on that point.
In Hamburg 20,000 people joined a torch-lit march in support of 2024 and produced stats showing it to be the country’s “sportiest” city. But when an official referendum was held in November 2015, 51.6 per cent didn’t want it. The predicted cost of US$11.9bn was a major issue, of course, especially with the public purse strained by the torrent of refugees and immigrants entering Germany at the time. The No vote was also influenced by the FIFA scandal, public disenchantment with doping in cycling and athletics, and security fears – the vote was held just a fortnight after terrorists killed 130 people in Paris. Sadly, all those concerns will continue to bother people around the world.
Mr Bach took a public swipe at Hamburg for giving up the “opportunity of a lifetime” and a $1.7bn IOC subsidy, but said that at least there would be strong competition from the remaining four. But in September 2016, Rome’s new mayor – elected on a “no bid” ticket – pulled her city out, saying it would be “irresponsible” to leave a legacy of “concrete.” Then in February, Budapest dropped out, 260,000 people signing a petition against, and saying the money would be better spent on hospitals and schools.
I do not profess to understand all the political machinations that have enabled the uncontested endorsement of a summer Games 11 years hence.
With every Olympic cycle, there are renewed pleas for a permanent site, which the IOC habitually rejects on idealogical grounds. Right now, though, it looks like the only viable solution for 2032 and beyond.
If the Olympics were to make this radical step, Olympic horse sport should also survive because a permanent horse park would defuse, at a stroke, all the usual objections to equestrianism on grounds of expense. Whether Olympic equestrianism itself will be recognisable as the elite sport we know and love in 15 years’ time remains to be seen, of course.