Jolly good show but for the ending

Big names will draw the crowds, but equestrianism will find few friends while officials have their heads in the clouds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 4:35am

It has been a long trek to AsiaWorld-Expo this past week, but it has been well worth it on two counts - it has opened my eyes to why equestrianism will never be a mainstream sport and reinforced the belief that big names are what draw the crowds in Hong Kong.

Okay, how many of you know the difference between a trot and a canter? One would have to chat to the equine community to discover the finer points between these gaits. It is unfathomable for the casual observer, and there were many at the Longines Hong Kong Masters. One Kowloon housewife who had come along for the ride said: "The horses are beautiful".

The horses, indeed, were beautiful. When you have seven of the world's top 10 riders including world No 1 Christian Ahlmann of Germany, you are bound to see some decent horseflesh in the mix.

It was all very civilised. You had the corporate community sipping vintage Veuve Clicquot champagne and nibbling on sea bass flown in from Brussels and prepared by a Michelin-starred chef. They nodded their heads knowledgeably at the high jinks out on the competitive arena. From chief executive to housewife, they were all enraptured by the circus.

Yet the sport continues to shoot itself in the foot. Back in 2008, when Hong Kong held the equestrian competition for the Beijing Olympics, the sport's top official, Princess Haya bint al Hussein, the wife of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, remarked that the sport was in danger of losing its Olympic status. Her biggest worry was that equestrianism had made itself too complex for the common folk as well as the fact that doping had raised its insidious head.

Of the riders who turned up in Hong Kong, Ahlmann and Ireland's Denis Lynch were among six whose horses tested positive for drugs at the 2008 Olympics. Another, Germany's Ludger Beerbaum, was stripped of his team gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics for a similar offence. So behind the glitz and glamour, there is a dark side to the sport.

But the biggest headache for the sport is its complexity and this is not helped by the up-in-the-air attitude of its officials. A good example was the press conference on the final night, soon after Frenchman Patrice Delaveau had won the showpiece event. It turned out to be a shambles. On stage were representatives from the sponsors, the organisers, the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, the movie and Canto-pop star. Everyone was full of themselves, patting each other on the back for a job well done. The winning riders had to take a backseat, and wait until this orgy of self-gratification was over before they were invited to share the limelight.

In all my years of reporting, I have never seen the athletes playing second fiddle at a post-event press conference. In equestrianism, it seems the officials have lost the plot.

Take the rules of the competition at this event. In the finale, the 28-strong field had to take part in two rounds, the first being an elimination to unearth a maximum of 12 riders, or all with clear rounds, who would go on to contest the jump-off for the championship. The first three riders, the order being drawn from a hat, went out to jump the 1.6-metre fences - Olympic height - and needed to complete the course in 77 seconds. All three failed before the judges decided the course was a bit too technical and extended the time limit to 80 seconds. The first three riders were treated as guinea pigs.

An official explained this was within the rules of the competition. She, however, could not explain if it was fair on the first three riders who went out with the pressure of knowing they had to complete the course in 77 seconds. An extra three seconds is an eternity in show jumping.

Yes, it was fun, but equestrianism has to change its attitudes and rules. However, no such worries as far as tennis is concerned. The BNP Paribas Showdown, another circus, was a huge hit at the airport venue.

The presence of legends Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, plus pretty faces Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska, made the exhibition a modest success. And Lendl summed it up well when he said: "If you want the serious stuff, go watch the top-ranked players."

Indeed, it was nothing more than a good laugh. And Hong Kong's love for big-name stars, even those who have long retired, made it worth the long trek.