The conclusion of the Olympic Individual Show Jumping in Brazil was a thrilling and emotional event, and fans worldwide watched as the sport took on a different look.
It is fitting that 58-year-old Nick Skelton, one of the greatest riders of all time, capped a spectacular career in golden fashion. The scorecard looked dramatically different than in previous Olympics, and the audience loved it. How and why did this happen?
Sporting culture has changed in the past 20 years. Show jumping needed to keep up or be left behind in the ultra-competitive battle for fans attention.
People still love to watch a literal car wreck, but these days they have reality TV to fill that void. Spectators don’t want to see horses or riders hurt. They want their excitement through drama and success. That is what we witnessed in Rio, and you can expect to see more of that in the future.
Four riders were disqualified for “rough riding.” As a rider, I did not like to see these rulings as I have empathy for the work these riders put in to attend these championships.
The message is clear: ANY form of what can be construed as excessive force will not be tolerated.
But as a fan, it was the right decision and has my full support. The message is clear: ANY form of what can be construed as excessive force will not be tolerated. This raises the bar on the training of rider and horse to an even higher level, and I am all for that.
The biggest change though was in the scorecard of the class. Team scores were better than normal but I am focusing on the individual results.
Here is some insight into the mind of a rider: we hate large jump offs! It’s very difficult to produce clear rounds at the top level and when you do you want to be rewarded.
So when there were six double clear rounds in Rio, my immediate thought was “Whoops, it’s too easy. The highly respected (and with good reason, he is my favorite designer as a rider) Guilherme Jorge had missed.”
How can you be double clear in the Olympic Final and not medal? AND that was going to happen to three riders? Double clear means an automatic medal in modern show jumping.
What transpired next was the most dramatic jump off in World Championships history.
What transpired next was the most dramatic jump off in World Championships history and vindicated Jorge, who, as it turned out, did his job perfectly and ushered in the future vision of equestrian.
In order for the sport to continue in the Olympics, the TV and social media numbers need to be high. Riders will always watch. It’s about attracting the casual fan to the sport that will determine its success or failure on a worldwide scale.
In Rio, six horse/rider combinations were double clear in the Individual Final, with Nick Skelton (GBR) and Peder Fredricson (SWE) triple clear. The Swedish rider jumped three clear rounds and ended up with silver. This is unprecedented in modern Olympic history.
In the past 20 years, only three riders have jumped a double clear at the Olympic final. In Athens, Sydney, and Atlanta nobody was able to accomplish the feat.
This historical shift happened for two reasons.
There is more depth in the sport than ever before. You could legitimately say that 20 riders were very capable of winning Gold in Rio, more than ever before. Having the top 35 riders enter the final round on a clean slate is unique and creates amazing drama.
Secondly, Olympic show jumping is no longer who can “survive” the massive jumps. It now combines huge jumps with more technique and style. The competition ended up with a very deserving winner, as Nick and Big Star are both superstars in jumping and now have an Individual Gold Medal to go with their Team Gold Medal from London 2012.
The fans were treated to show jumping that is perfect for the world today. Drama, brilliance, athleticism, and no disasters. Expect to see more of this in the future, and that is good for the horses, the fans, the sport, and ultimately the riders.
About the Author
Canadian Equestrian Team member Jay Duke is a clinician, judge, trainer, and coach. He trained famed Regular Hunter, Mindful, as well as USEF Horse of the Year award winners King Davide and Caymus. Duke has coached two riders to medal-winning performances at the North American Young Riders Championships. Read his exclusive interview with Guilherme Jorge in the Chronicle of The Horse, Olympic Analysis Issue, on September 26.