Bridging the divide on a hot issue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

Everyone in the room had their hands raised, but it was not a surge of questions for the panel of veterinarians seated on the stage. Instead, it was a show of unanimity that Hong Kong could indeed successfully host the equestrian events at the Olympics this summer.

The raised hands were in response to the question: 'Do you think it is acceptable to ask horses to compete in Hong Kong?' - the same question posed in an online poll by Horse and Hound. While this straw poll saw all hands raised in favour of 'yes', Horse and Hound's measure was far more polarised. Of the 1,288 votes, just 51 per cent expressed their confidence. The other 49 per cent voted no.

How the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), the organisers of this week's conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, can move the public away from this near-even split is uncertain and that topic was up for discussion as the conference on the heat and humidity in Hong Kong leading up to the Games came to a close.

As the speakers took their turn at the podium, a blank row of seats and microphones sat on top of the stage, as if ready for an intense question-and-answer session. The heat and humidity (it is the combination that makes the summer particularly uncomfortable) has been the focal issue in the lead-up to the Games.

The climate became even more of an issue after the Swiss dressage team withdrew from Olympic competition a few weeks ahead of the scheduled workshop. There was suddenly a flurry of questions about what was being done to ensure the welfare of horses and a few riders began to publicly express their concerns.

Though it had been planned for months, the nearly 160 delegates from 25 national federations could not gather at Lausanne's Olympic Museum quickly enough.

Some anticipated, at the very least, a sense of hostility or perhaps a feistiness that would see the scientists challenged or more questions asked as to whether enough was being done to try and manage the weather conditions.

The worst that occurred was the presenters' succession of failed jokes about speaking under the influence of flu medicine.

'I think the atmosphere was pretty positive,' said Catherine Kohn, who presented the physiological results from horses who competed at the test event. 'There's always uncertainty, but most people were somewhat encouraged that there are ways of managing [the weather conditions].'

Kohn said the abstract could be seen as frightening; her colleague, Chris Riggs, head veterinarian at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, echoed a similar theory, saying that there was perhaps a fear of the unknown.

Opinions were also divided depending on where the riders were based.

'I think athletes from different parts of the world deal with it a little differently,' said three-time Olympic gold medallist Andrew Hoy, who attended as part of the FEI's athlete commission.

'I know athletes from Australia, where they've maybe grown up in a hot environment, deal with the heat better than athletes coming from a cooler, northern European climate.

'I think a lot of it is mentally being prepared for it and that's something that I think people are a little nervous about at this stage.'

If the presentations failed to impress, the veterinarians did not say so publicly. From her research based on last August's test event, Kohn said air-conditioned stables - a first in Olympic competition - had a major role in enabling the horse to 'comfortably recover from exercise'. All 17 horses in the study were able to undertake the challenges of the competition, including withstanding the ambient temperature, and remained healthy.

Leo Jeffcott, the dean of veterinary science at the University of Sydney, undertook a study that was nearly three years in the making. It involved everything from simulated test events to optimising the times for the competition, by calculating the shadow index (the competitions will start as early as 6.30am and as late as 10.10pm). The average temperature is expected to be uncomfortable at 35 degrees Celsius, with humidity averaging 80-90 per cent.

'We haven't hidden the facts,' FEI veterinary committee chair John McEwan said.

Still, the presenters were careful to use language that altered the way the situation had been perceived publicly - concern was substituted with challenge, as was an introduction which began 'every Olympics has its challenges'. The word combination of heat and humidity was used just a dozen or so times.

Nations varied in the extent of knowledge they had prior to arriving. While some federations, such as the Russian federation, said they arrived at the workshop in need of more information about the facilities and horse acclimatisation, other teams were at the forefront of research.

'We still think that a difference in the climate between Russia and Hong Kong will be a problem for our team,' said Russian team veterinarian Eugeny Gorovoy. 'We will [have to] pay more attention to the preparation for the Olympic Games, but during the workshop we got a lot of useful information that will help.'

Will Connell, the performance director at the British Equestrian Federation, said the British team had started their preparations for the climate 'since the day it was announced' that the equestrian events would be in Hong Kong.

'I don't know exactly what everyone felt before [they] walked into that room in Lausanne,' Connell said. 'I certainly felt by the end, there was a definite feeling that everything was being done for the welfare of the horses.'

While reassuring that everything would be in place and that, in reality, the horses would be spending minimal time outdoors, the presenters impressed upon the audience that innovative facilities and cooling techniques alone would not absolve riders from responsibility.

'I don't wish you to be complacent,' Jeffcott said. 'I wish you to be informed. It [the venue] will have everything that is required, but it will also need a great amount of effort.'

The word 'allay' has been oft used in describing the workshop's purpose. In the sense of reducing the severity of concern, the presentation did indeed allay worries. But 'allay' cannot be used in terms of quieting the issue.

'I suspect the conversation will continue now, which was one of the purposes [of the workshop], to start the conversation and give everyone access to the information,' Kohn said.

Kohn added that she did not anticipate people who had concerns would stop worrying, only that they would openly discuss their apprehensions.

For whatever the reactions, the overall message in Switzerland rang clear, none more so than midway through a presentation detailing the opening hours of the purpose-built clinic and the availability of equine ambulances and mobile cooling tanks.

The veterinarians jotted down their notes and an equestrian journalist leaned over and whispered: 'It's quite impressive'.

The organisers could not have been more pleased.

Race against time

Minutes it will take to transfer horses from the plane to air-conditioned horseboxes: 8

Comfort zone

The stables will be kept at this many degrees Celsius, to ensure horses are comfortable: 23

August scorcher

The temperature during the day. Competition will take place in the early morning or at night: 35

Equine influx

The number of horses expected for the Olympics and Paralympics: 300