British fans show their love for royalty and horses
with Alvin Sallay
A good brolly is a much-needed accessory in London as I discovered after nearly 10 days without any mishap. But the famous weather finally caught up with me and I returned to my hotel drenched to the skin. With laundry costs exorbitant, I wonder if it wouldn't be cheaper to buy a new T-shirt and trousers rather than pay GBP4 (HK$48) and GBP8.80 for each item respectively, every time you send your clothes to the hotel cleaners. And that's without the dreaded VAT.
Thankfully the rain kept away while I was at Greenwich Park, seated about 20 rows behind Kate, William and Harry - the royals who are attracting even more media attention than the athletes themselves. The only time the paparazzi move their lenses away from Kate and company is when Zara Phillips rides into the show-jumping arena. But she too is a royal, even if she is 14th in line to the throne.
The British are enthralled by royalty. So it is no surprise then that a sport which is closely linked to blue-blood aristocracy should draw massive crowds who had flocked to London's largest and loveliest park, covering a full 73 hectares and is partly the work of the same man who landscaped the famous palace garden of Versailles for Louis XIV.
During the 'Ancien Regime', European royal bloodlines mingled, and they being all but incestuous, I suppose it didn't bother them to share a gardener or two. And their love for horses was the stuff of legend, no wonder they still call racing the sport of kings.
Queen Elizabeth herself is an ardent horse-lover. Horses are so much part of her life and this has distilled down to the common man. From Royal Ascot to Trooping the Colour to polo, it's horses, horses everywhere. And being a symbol of royal prestige, equestrianism has been a mainstay of British aristocracy for centuries.
So much so that Time magazine in a recent issue to herald the queen's Jubilee remarked: 'It [equestrianism] shapes their dress, their pastimes, and even, some would say, their looks. (Hence the stereotypical 'horsey' posh girl: big-nosed and toothy.)'
The Olympics and the British royal family also have close links. Mark Phillips, once the husband of Princess Anne, won a gold medal for Britain in eventing at the 1972 Munich Games. Princess Anne, too, was an ardent eventer and tried her hand four years later at the Montreal Games but came home empty-handed. Their daughter Zara Phillips, the queen's granddaughter, joined the Olympic honours list when she won a silver in the eventing team category.
After two missed opportunities - Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 (when Hong Kong hosted the equestrian competition) when on both occasions her horse at the time, Toytown, went lame - Zara finally made her Olympic debut and it was a massive success.
Yes, it would have been tough to play second fiddle to Germany, but Britain were celebrating their silver-lined triumph along with tens of thousands of fans who waved Union Jacks and cheered wildly whenever one of the five British riders was on show in the jumping category, the third and last - the first two being dressage and cross-country - in eventing.
It was a feel-good moment at the Games and one which will be long cherished by the athletes themselves and long-remembered by the fans who were present. But if not for all the glamour of royalty and such, is equestrianism really worthy of being in the Olympics?
The numbers don't add up. In the three categories at these Games, eventing is allowed 75 competitors, dressage 50 and show-jumping 75. There are 22, 23 and 26 countries respectively in each of these disciplines with most doubling up, for example, Britain represented in all the events.
If the Olympics are supposed to be for sports which are truly global, then equestrianism certainly doesn't fit the bill. The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) has to take the blame for this. The qualifying competitions for these Games were heavily weighted towards countries with strong equestrian traditions. Asia was hard done by as it was lumped with other stronger nations from other regions for a couple of places. Japan is the only presence from Asia.
While the European championship and the Pan-American Games are Olympic qualifiers, the Asian Games is not. Why the double standards? The International Olympic Committee, which has given equestrianism a warning that it could be out of the Olympics, has frozen quotas of riders at a maximum of 75 for show-jumping and eventing, adding further pressure on universality.
To make matters worse, it is also not cheap to host equestrianism. Hong Kong knows how expensive it was to fly in horses, build stables and facilities for competition etc. Thankfully the Jockey Club footed the bill (in return it got valuable land taken from the adjoining Sports Institute).
It is a fabulous sport to behold but when you add up all the costs and the fact that the FEI is still very much Euro-centric, it seems the clock is ticking on equestrianism. Yet this town is going gaga over equestrianism. A long tradition helps, as does the presence of royalty.
Sometimes I wish I had a bit of blue blood in me.