Top Judge Stephen Clarke of Britain on Olympics & State of Dressage

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Olympic dressage judging panel of (l to r) Jean-Michel Roudier of France, Evi Eisenhardt of Germany, Gary Rockwell of USA, Leif Tornblad of Denmark, Maribel Alonso of Mexico, Stephen Clarke and Wim Ernes of the Netherlands. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

B KENNETH J. BRADDICK

As one of the world’s top internatonal judges, Stephen Clarke gets the highest marks in what are sometimes opposing attributes–respect and popularity–enhanced by his role as president of the ground jury at the summer Olympic Gamess that may have been the most successful showcase ever for dressage.

London was his second Olympic judging assignment–Athens in 2004 was the first–and the capital of his homeland as the host was applauded for everything from the quality of competition to embrace of horsepsorts as a real member of the Olympic family and not an event distant from the heart of the Games to a friendliness and efficiency that have not been traditional hallmarks of Great Britain.

As to the competition, he said from his unique perspective from a judge’s box at ground level closer to the action than anyone else, success is “all a bit of luck.”

“If you think that in any championship year the medaling countries are those that have three or four horses that are on top form at the same point. The deeper and broader the base in a country the more chance there is of that happening. Look at Holland that were unbeatable two years ago. Suddenly they didn’t have those horses.

“Great Britain was lucky it had its team of the three top horses that were at the top of their form at the same time.

“I think it comes down, usually, to horsepower. I think all the countries have top riders. I think it’s purely a matter of whether they have sufficient horsepower in that year and if they can all peak at the same time.

“That Germany where there is a broad base could put together a young, inexperienced team but still good enough to win a silver medal is admirable.”

With dressage sold out at the Olympics and plans underway to expand the Deutsche Bank dressage stadium at Aachen, Germany, where the freestyles are sold out a year ahead of time, Stephen said:

“I see dressage as a sport that has just arrived. I think it’s grabbing the public’s attention because I don’t think you need to be a technical expert to appreciate something as beautiful as when they ride their freestyles, when beautiful music can touch the emotions of the general public. My hope is that dressage will simply go from strength to srength.”

The 60-year-old 5* judge–the highest level–who has ridden in jumpers, eventing and has been involved in international dressage since the mid-1970s reprised the London Games in a conversation with dressage-news.com at a recent CDI.

Greenwich Park Olympic equestrian venue. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Leading up to the Games at historic Greenwich Park with a panoramic view of the London skyline, he helped with the design of the arena boards, judges boxes and other aspects.

“What impressed me the most was the ease and friendliness of the organization,” he recalled. “Everything was run like clockwork. Seen from the outside, it seemed to be without effort.

“What made it were the volunteers, they absolutely made it.”

Although one of the world’s great cities but crowded and expensive London, he said, became a “different city” during the Olympics.

“London turned into party town. Wherever you went everybody was friendly and spoke to you.

“I hope London will never be the same again.”

Visitors in every capacity–sightseers and spectators, officials, athletes, vendors and media–would agree.

Everyone, too, including International Equestrian Federation (FEI) President Princess Haya who seemed to be everywhere, breathed a huge sigh of relief there was no repeat of Athens and Beijing Olympics that were mired in doping abuses leading to reallocation of medals after globally televised awards ceremonies and arbirary management of dressage that blatantly violated the rules.

As president of the panel of seven judges instead of the five judges in previous Olympics and a three-member supervisory panel second-guessing the scoring for the first time at an Olympics, Stephen was in the spotlight.

In his view, judging has changed from the days of the perception that only the “names” got the scores if they came from the right nation.

“In the years when people would say that only the famous names got the points,” Stephen said, “the problem was those top riders knew how to pull the points whereas some of the younger riders threw the points away.

“Things have changed, everybody’s got a bit wiser.”

Training of judges has been a factor as he has seen first hand from training judges for many years in Britain. FEI judges who do not fulfill annual educational requirements risk not having their licenses renewed.

“I always feel that as judges, if we see tens we give tens. The more riders can produce them the more we’ll give them.

“I hear, ‘Oh, the riders are getting very high scores.’

“I think it’s important to remember that if a rider gets 83 per cent in fact there is a problem somewhere along the line because they’ve lost 17 per cent.

“Ten means excellent. We have some excellent riders and some excellent horses.

“The problem is horses are only animals and riders are only humans. If anyone could ever ride a perfect test without a single mistake it would be a miracle.

“But miracles happen.”

Scores are higher today than in the past, he said, for lots of reasons.

“It starts these days with breeding policies,” Stephen said. “There are many more talented horses available with very good riders to train them. We owe huge thanks to the breeding industry for that.

“Good riders with the right material, and in these days of highly refined training techniques for horses and humans, it brings out the best in those talented horses they’re training and therefore earning higher points.

“I think the training techniques are so refined, particulryl for riders; there is a lot more physical and mental training these days. That pays off.

“I think everything is better.

“The riding is better. The horses have more quality. We have more horses with real athletic ability.

“Judging, I think, is clearer and, I’m happy to say I think it’s really good that that myth has been dispelled because if you look at the major championships over the past few years you see the changes. Totilas came up like a Phoenix from the ashes. Charlotte (Dujardin) had not ridden Grand Prix until 18 months before the Olympics.

“The public can see that if the riders can produce the goods they will get the points no matter who they are.”

Stephen is not unused to being in the spotlight.

Two years before the Olympics, he made one of the toughest calls in a world championship, the disqualification of Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands when her Parzival bled from the mouth in the Grand Prix at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. The team led by Edward Gal and Totilas still won gold.

Just a couple of months before that, he made the equally tough call of stopping Ulla Salzgeber on her Herzruf’s Erbe as she was about to go into the arena at what was Germany’s final WEG selection event at Aachen because hs spotted a problem with one of the horse’s hind legs. Ulla dismounted and withdrew.

Eighteen months later he worked with FEI officials and organizers to save a World Dressage Masters event in Florida where he was president of the ground jury. Some combinations did not meet the requirements of a CDI5* with less than 24 hours hours before the start of the freestyle. The competition was downgraded a notch to be within the rules, but the sold-out crowd didn’t care as they got to enjoy top competition and the riders got the same prizemoney.