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Under the weather in Hong Kong
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The surprise pullout of Switzerland's dressage team from the 2008 Beijing Games last week has triggered concerns over the welfare of horses competing in the humid Hong Kong weather, but international equestrian officials downplayed the significance of the pullout.

"The Olympic Games are a complex project that requires a lot of planning and preparation and last-minute changes are not exceptional. In the case of equestrian sport, there are not one but two athletes - horse and rider - so changes are twice as likely to happen," International Equestrian Federation (FEI) Communication Manager Malina Fueorguiev told China Daily.

"A horse may be ill, lame, et cetera at the last minute and not be able to compete. Riders may even decide to withdraw their horse after the competition has begun if they see that the horse is not in its best form."

Swiss top dressage rider and world No 4 Silvia Ikl was the first rider to opt out of the Games. She said last Tuesday on her website that she does not want to expose her horse Salieri to travel-related stress and the humid conditions in Hong Kong in August.

"It was with great difficulty that I came to this decision (but) I have always held the interest of my horses in the highest priority," Ikl wrote.

Without his top competitor, Swiss chief dressage coach Peter von Grebel decided to pull the entire Swiss dressage team from the Games. Two days after the Swiss withdrawal, two high-profile Canadian dressage riders followed suit citing similar reasons, Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail reported.

Hua Shan, the father of Chinese eventing rider Alex Hua Tian, who will probably become the first Chinese rider at the Olympic Games, said he could understand the concerns about the horses.

"In the nature of the sport, the utmost important thing is the welfare of the horses," he said. "We are very concerned about the weather too."

But Hua Shan thinks the Swiss riders would have been better off waiting until after the workshop that will take place on February 17 in Lausanne, Switzerland, which will brief representatives from all federations on the weather and veterinary matters relating to August's event.

"It is a big challenge (to cope with the weather) for everyone, and there is now no related scientific report before the workshop. So we are expecting to meet next month and then we can take effective measures," he said.

Equestrian powerhouse Great Britain, which sent a 30-member squad to last year's test event in Hong Kong to gain first-hand insight into the local conditions, believes its riders and horses can handle the weather conditions.

British Equestrian Federation (BEF) performance director Will Connell told the BBC last Thursday that the team has "no plan" to withdraw from any of the equestrian events, adding his team would be able to guard against the worst effects of the expected 32 C (90 F) temperatures.

"Protocols being developed will ensure the horses' welfare," he said.

The Equestrian Company (EqCo), the body overseeing the Olympic equestrian events, was not overly concerned about the Swiss dressage team's withdrawal.

"We do not expect this to have any effect on the Games, as the withdrawn team will be replaced by others on the ranking list," Mark Pinkstone, a spokesman for EqCo told China Daily.

"It is an isolated case. It will not affect the decisions of other teams."

Despite the withdrawal, the FEI, the sport's governing body, is still satisfied with the local organizers' preparations

"We believe it is a personal decision, which is sad for the Swiss team. But we don't think it puts the Games at risk. Preparations are going ahead as planned and we are looking forward to an exciting Olympic Games," Fueorguiev said.

Weather worries

Hong Kong's hot and humid summer conditions were considered when the event was relocated there due to the concerns over equine disease and quarantine complications on the Chinese mainland.

According to the Hong Kong Observatory, afternoon temperatures between July and September often exceed 31 C, while temperatures at night generally hover around 26 C with high humidity.

Olympic organizers said the weather in Hong Kong is not unique and that horses taking part in past Olympics in Atlanta and Athens faced similar conditions.

Previous Olympic equestrian events have been successfully held in hot and distant (to Europe) locations such as Los Angeles and Atlanta, and a great deal has been learned over the past decades about how to look after horses competing in these weather conditions.

Christopher Riggs, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's head of veterinary services, said based on what he observed in Athens and Atlanta, most horses should be able to acclimate within 10 days.

The schedule of events should also make the horses more comfortable as competitions have been arranged to take advantage of the cooler times of the day, either early in the morning or in the evening after sunset. Training times will also be adjusted according to weather conditions.

In addition to fully air-conditioned stables, which will keep the horses cool and comfortable during rest periods, large misting fans and ice boxes will be installed at the venues for horses to cool down after every workout.

"We gave full consideration to the local weather conditions when building the venues," said Liu Daping, the spokeswoman from Hong Kong Jockey Club, which invested $100 million to build the Olympic equestrian venues. "At last August's test event, all these measures worked effectively."

Those efforts have been well received by FEI officials.

"We are all aware that the climate is difficult, but much planning and extensive preparations are being done to deal with these difficulties," Fueorguiev said.

"Some of the world's finest specialists in veterinary medicine and climatology are involved in these preparations and we are confident that, despite the challenges, the 2008 Olympic Games will be successful."

(China Daily January 18, 2008)

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