Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2008, 12:00am

What a huge shame. The chance to rub shoulders with royalty in Sha Tin this summer was lost after equestrienne Zara Phillips was forced to withdraw from the Beijing Olympics.

She was the one person in this fringe sport who had star quality. The queen's grand-daughter does the same thing to equestrianism as Nadia Comaneci did to gymnastics - bring about instant recognition among the unwashed masses.

Unless you are a horse fanatic - and I don't mean those people who flock to Sha Tin and Happy Valley regularly - very few people can relate to the sport of equestrianism, despite the ongoing efforts of the equestrian federation and the Jockey Club to educate the public in the run-up to the Games in two months.

Ask most teenagers who Kobe Bryant is and they will answer he is the MVP keeping the LA Lakers alive in the NBA finals. Ask them about Ronaldo and they would most probably say he is Portugal's pouting poster boy who will win them Euro 2008.

But then football and basketball are two sports with a universal fan base and worldwide acclaim. Not so the Olympic event, which will unfold in Sha Tin in August. But there was hope as we still had Zara Phillips - until this week.

Phillips, the reigning world champion, was forced to withdraw from the Great Britain team to take part in the three-day eventing competition after her horse, Toytown, was injured during training. The injury was not revealed.

Her absence will be a big blow to British Olympic hopes. UK Sport, the funding body, has set a target of Britain finishing eighth in the medal table at Beijing, two places higher than in 2004. That would mean beating the Athens tally of nine golds by at least one, so the loss of Phillips, an Olympic competitor with realistic hopes of a gold medal, is a big blow.

An equestrian team leader said: 'We have to be realistic. Zara is the reigning world champion and we had high hopes she would help the team bring back a medal and also be in contention for an individual medal, so it is a blow.

'However, we do have very good quality reserves and now it's up to the selectors to decide who they will recommend to the British Olympic Association.'

You would have thought there were enough four-legged animals in the royal stables for Phillips, 27, to fall back on, but under International Equestrian Federation rules, riders must qualify their own horses for the Olympics. Phillips has a stable of horses but Toytown is the only one to have achieved the qualifying standard. More established riders tend to have a better strength in depth.

It is bad news that Phillips didn't have another horse that could match Toytown, the horse on which Phillips won the individual gold at the World Equestrian Games in Germany two years ago.

Her loss will also be a big blow to Hong Kong for she would have brought glamour to Sha Tin. The world's TV cameras would have been trained on her every move, the media would have followed her everywhere. Even the queen would have been watching.

Never mind Hong Kong, even the IOC must be crying out at the loss of a big-name athlete.

The last - and only - member of the British royal family to have taken part in the Olympics was Princess Anne, who competed at the 1976 Montreal Games.

The timing couldn't have been worse. Browsing through an Admiralty bookshop a few days ago, we came across an autobiography of Phillips and deciding this would provide some insight into her life, we forked out HK$300 for the book.

Just my luck - which has never been good when it involves anything about horses - to read the following day that she had pulled out of her second successive Olympic Games (she missed out of Athens four years ago, again due to an injury to the delicate Toytown).

So now we are lumped with reading material about a royal rebel who once sported a tongue stud to the 100th birthday celebrations of her great grandmother - the queen mother.

It is this rebellious streak - taken after her mum, according to the book - which has given Zara (which in Greek means 'bright as the dawn' and was chosen by Prince Charles) the ability to raise eyebrows. She would have been a hit in Hong Kong.

Phillips was gunning to complete the treble - already crowned European and world champion - by winning the gold medal at the Olympics. She will now have to put that on hold until the 2012 London Games.

By then she will most probably be Zara Tindall - that is if she opts to take the name of her long-term boyfriend, England rugby international Mike Tindall who played in the 2003 World Cup final, which England won.

Whether her absence will have an effect on ticket sales is moot. The final batch of 60,000 tickets allocated to Hong Kong went on sale this week, a couple of weeks before originally planned.

Organisers, who had priced the tickets cheaply, said bringing forward the date had nothing to do with fears that the eventing, showjumping and dressage events would be played out in front of half-empty stands.

But their timing, like mine, couldn't have been worse with Phillips pulling out.