How UK Lottery Helped to Write Olympic History in London

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Charlotte Dujardin, the poster child of Great Britain's dressage winner of two gold medals at the London Olympics. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

LONDON, Aug. 12–Great Britain’s emotional and history-making performance in Olympic dressage winning both gold medals in London has sparked interest in the nation’s funding and support after a century of a medal famine, but a question is whether the results are a one-time event special to the homeland in 2012.

The probable sale of the top two horses, Valegro ridden by double gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin and Uthopia that was the mount for Carl Hester who owns pieces of both and has been Charlotte’s trainer for six years, as well as at the age at 17 years of Mistral Hojris, the third team horse and ridden by Laura Bechtolsheimer presents a challenge in preparing for the next Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The road to Rio goes through the European Championships next year to qualify for the World Equestrian Games in Normandy in 2014 that will be the first opportunity for the the top three teams to win a ticket to Brazil–whch automatically qualifies as host–if the procedure for these Games is a guide. Then a second chance for another three Western European places at the European Championships in 2015. Western Europe includes the traditional powerhouses of Germany and the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Spain.

British dressage will be looking to Charlotte, Carl and Laura with beginning Grand Prix horses that have taken a back seat for the past year or Michael Eilberg with the breathtaking Woodlander Farouche, only six years old, or other combinations not yet at the fore as prospects for Rio.

Woodlander Farouche being ridden by Michael Eilberg to six-year-old world championionship, after winning five-year-old title in 2011. © 2012 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

Will Connell, the fulltime Team GB Equestrian Team Leader, sat down with dressage-news.com to explain what support British riders get from the so-called World Class Program, a system funded by UK Sport for dressage, eventing, jumping and para-equestrian athletes to deliver more medals on the international stage.

The mission of the program is to identify talent, maximize potential and deliver medals. It started funding high performance horse sports before the Sydney 2000 Olympics with a boost when the Games were awarded to London seven years ago.

Over the past four years, almost £16 million (US$25 million) has been spent on Olympic and Paralympic programs, with the total including personal awards to athletes and some administrative costs of the British Equestrian Federation.

The World Class program, he said, does not buy horses.

Dressage combinations seeking to be in the World Class program–whether at Grand Prix or other levels–need to be scoring over 70 per cent, a standard that was set to “change people’s mentality” and less meant they were “not good enough to be on the British team.”

“We try and produce an environment around the top athletes that allows and asists them to maximize their performance,” he said.

“The funding has fundamentally impacted our ability to deliver medals at Olympic Games,” he said, pointing out that Britain won a single gold in a total of 15 medals in Atlanta in 1996 as against third place on the gold medal table with 29, 17 silver and 19 bronze at this year’s London Games.

Five of the 2012 medals came in equestrian sports–two gold and a bronze in dressage, one gold in jumping and a silver in eventing.

The front of a medal belongs to the athlete, Will said, but he calls the World Class program one of the many support elements that make up “the other side of the medal.”

Support directly provided to athletes, said Will, who served in the British Army for 17 years and whose no-nonsence but thoughtful approach has won him admirers both in and out of Britain, funding to go to competitions–young jumper rider Scott Brash joined Nick Skelton and Ben Maher who became his gold medal team mates in competing at Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival this year to help prepare for the big time.

Veterinarians, farriers, physiotherapists travel to the training centers of the top riders, and sport psychologists are among a menu of services available,

Carl Hester (red cap) watching Charlotte Dujardin riding to her Olympic individual gold medal. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“Take Carl,” he said. “He probably had a more difficult job in London than any oher athlete in any other sport. In addition to himself and his horse, he was also training Charlotte.

“We’re not going to tell Carl how to do his job. We create an environment so that when he came to the Olympics it allowed him and the others to focus purely and solely on their horses.

“We fund them to stay outside the Olympic Village in a hotel near the equestrian venue, provide tickets for their close friends and relatives, give them a place to chill out, insure the very best team support with them and around them creating the envinment they are most comfortable with so they don’t have to worry about anything other tha riding their horses.”

The support goes way beyond the personal for the athletes.

Research into the fitness of dressage horses, recovery from travel, competition surfaces and equipment that should be in a rider’s”kit.”

Almost £250,000 (US$392,000) was spent on measuring the impact of climate such as heat and humidity on horses.

All the British horses shipped to the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, flew in wide berths–the equine equivalent of first class–to provide greatest comfort.

The U.S. would not allow foreign hay to be imported for WEG, so at considerable cost the British imported a container of American hay so their horses would be used to the diet when they were in Kentucky.

He plans his third trip to Rio de Janeiro in November, a location on which considerable knowledge was obtained from participants at the 2007 Pan American Games equestrian competition as well as the annual Global Champions jumping tour.

To make owners, friends and family feel part of the team, team clothing is provided as well as a dinner for owners.

“We won’t change someone who is not a medal winner into a medal winner,” he said.

“Our product is medals and I’m responsible for that in equestrian. That’s what you accept in sport. I think we have it right. This acceptance of responsibility we don’t always see in all walks of life.”

The difference in winning gold and fnishing fourth in equestrian sports, Will said, is comparable to a thousandth of a second in a track event–so narrow as to be almost immeasurable.

Britain, he said, traditionally has supported racing on the flat and over fences but does not have masses of well-monied people supporting Olympic horse sports to buy made horses. So the emphasis is on buying younger horses and bringing them along, as was the case with Valegro and Uthopia in dressage and other horses in jumping and eventing.

“I’m sure we will take a hit after the Olympics,” he said. “We will have to asses where we are. Some already have horses that are Rio horses.

“Rio starts in two years time because we have to qualify.

“In Europe, it is hellish difficult.

“For us, Olympic qualification is a major challenge. We will want to get to WEG (in Normandy) and try to nail it there.

“We could be Olympic medalists one year and two years later struggling to qualify for the Olympics.”