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
"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
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
"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
"Protocols being developed will ensure the horses' welfare," he
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
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.
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
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
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
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
(China Daily January 18, 2008)