China’s equestrian Olympic star, Alex Hua Tian, shares his thoughts on the current situation and gives a little insight into life in lockdown.
I don’t think it’s escaped anyone around the world that we are living through surreal and unprecedented times. The disruption, health worries and stress of all kinds has been felt by everyone. Other than the widespread health & financial concerns, the equestrian sports community here in the UK has largely had a charmed time in comparison to most both in the UK and around the world. We have been allowed to continue to train and care for our horses in what has been an extraordinarily warm and beautiful spring.
All of us in the horse sports industry thrive on competition, but I can’t be the only rider who has secretly relished the forced break? With events and regular trips back to China, I have never spent so much time at home. Sarah and I have really enjoyed spending time together as well as addressing those little issues we all have with each horse that often get glossed over in the middle of the season. The team at Pinfold have been superstars throughout this period. With the benefit of following the situation in China closer than most, we were aware of what may come and by taking it seriously early on, we managed to keep everyone confident enough in their safety.
Of course, a huge change for us has been that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has been postponed to nearly identical dates next year (although it will still be branded the 2020 Games). Although it was 100% the right decision, the news still came with mixed emotions and certainly a considerable drop in motivation in those first few weeks of lockdown! Again, I’m sure that I was not the only rider or athlete who took a “mental backseat” whilst processing the news (Olympics and COVID-19). Somehow, finding the drive to push for a little more suppleness or straightness seemed much harder for a short while!
I have the four horses campaigning towards this Olympic cycle: Don, Spike, Emo and Sox – all very different horses physically and mentally. Of course, Don, owned by Pip Higgins & Pam Dews, who finished 8th in Rio as a green 9-year-old, will be in his prime for next year – and he will have to be with his talented stable mates all equally raring to go! Whether the Olympics was this year or next, we know that the Tokyo summers are stiflingly hot and so having the horses in top condition before going will be even more important than normal.
An exciting part of this Olympic cycle is that China has qualified an eventing team for the first time ever, something that has been a big part of my life over the last two years since my team mates moved to Europe. They are all talented, professional horsemen with considerable experience on the national circuit in China, both in top showjumping as well as eventing. Despite this, competing in Europe has been a considerable step up for them and of course, the Olympics will be a daunting task for the team.
There has been some inevitable rumblings from within the industry that teams such as China and Thailand have been able to qualify. I like to take Japan’s journey to its current Championships quality as a shining example of what’s possible. In two Olympic cycles (8 years), the Japanese team has gone from crashing out of its first team Olympics at London in spectacular style, to coming into Tokyo as medal contenders (as well as off the back of team 4th at the last World Equestrian Games!).
The Japanese team has shown that strong strategic investment into a small pool of talented riders can be a successful model. Although many are unhappy that the overall quality of equestrian sport will be a little lower than average due to the new qualification rules put in place by the FEI, I am in no doubt that eventing and equestrian sports will be more interesting, more sustainable, have a far broader appeal and so a far stronger future with greater diversity and more flags taking part. The Olympics has and always will be the best way for riders from “untraditional” equestrian nations to secure investment in their horse power, and so allowing the Olympics to be a little more accessible will grow our sport.
In the past week, BE have announced that national events may start on the 4th of July, dependent on the expected lifting of further restrictions by the government. BE have not been without their own controversies over entry fees and abandonment insurance. Sadly, due to unavoidable Coronavirus measures, as well as the refund policy put in place (in case of future lock downs), there will be many members and owners who will not be able to event, or who will not want to take any further risk on entry fees. I, for one, understand these worries but also believe that BE has a responsibility to its members to try to run sport if it’s allowed to and if it can.
If things go ahead as scheduled, it will be a strange affair with social distancing, no congregating around the score boards and no arguing about whether to put the oxer in the warm up square or not! I am sure that as a community we will adapt quickly to these changes and the lifestyles we are so lucky to lead with our horses will go on – just in a slightly different guise for a while!