22 December 2002
The bright lights of Olympia mask the parlous state of a sport in which Britain once ruled the world
Christmas at Olympia: huge horses soaring over massive fences in front of a packed crowd, with such smart trimmings that even the tractor drivers wear dinner jackets. You would think that all was fine and dandy in a sport which Britain invented and once ruled the world. You would be wrong.
Wrong for Britain that is. Across Europe, show jumping has never been more successful, with tremendous prize-money and extensive TV coverage. But in the British year, Olympia is one of only four events which will draw top foreign competitors and feature at all on network television. It is a downward spiral which in August could go right through the plughole. For the first time we could fail even to qualify for the next Olympics.
The 2003 European Championships, at Donaueschingen in Germany, will be Britain’s last and only chance to book one of the two remaining Olympic tickets, something the form book cannot absolutely guarantee. We finished ninth in the 2001 European Championships, eighth in the Sydney Olympics and a record-low 16th in the World Championships in Jerez, Spain.
It is a situation for long faces. Walking round to the Olympia collecting ring on Thursday night was to find one of the most famous visages looking longest of all. “I don’t know what it is,” says David Broome, who rode in the 1960 Rome Olympics and in four subsequent Games as well as winning three European individual Golds. “We have some good riders around but the best shows and the best horses are in Europe. We need to get the public interest back.”
In his heyday David was the most natural, most perfectly blended rider over a jump that I have seen. But the very fact that we are evoking his highlights and those of Harvey Smith, still legendary for his two-finger salute after winning the Hickstead Derby, tells its tale. How many of today’s riders can you name?
Most answers don’t get much further than putting up somebody called Whitaker, and in Thursday’s big jumping class, this Yorkshire tribe provided four of the 11-strong home contingent in a 28-runner field – John Whitaker, his 19-year-old son Robert, his brother Michael and his niece Ellen. But can one family ever make a summer?
Attempts to widen the gene pool are centred on the young riders’ programme being developed by the British Equestrian Federation’s Performance Director Matt Straker, who has had more than 450 applicants for the 40 places on the programme. “Some are as young as 12 and 13,” he says, “they are very receptive to new ideas and have real potential. But we are talking about 2112 Olympics or the 2008 at Bejing at the earliest. More immediately, there is a big need for the sport to modernise, to try to streamline some of the committees and, indeed, to try to change the culture of some of the leading riders, who have such well-established careers and businesses that they are not necessarily focussed on what we really want to do, which is to win a Gold Medal at Athens.”
Following the World Championship disaster, there have been dark tales of UK Sport withholding its six-figure annual support or that the British Olympic Association might not even include the show jumping team in the Olympic squad. This week, there were more conciliatory noises coming from official quarters, while at Olympia a more optimistic view came from British team manager Derek Ricketts, who back in 1978 was part of a team which actually won the World Championship.
“Of course Spain was a big disappointment,” said Derek. “But the important thing about last season is that we won two Nations Cups and qualified for next year’s Super League as one of the top eight in the world, despite the fact that we lacked the horse power. Historically we have had the best riders and made do on lesser horses. Now, the continentals have some very good riders and have the money and the breeding programmes to keep the best horses too. Yet we do have some big owners and there are some good new horses coming in. Nick Skelton is back with Arko III, and John Whitaker may have two good ones in Lord Z and Carmen.”
Lord Z, with the muscular mass of a human sprinter, duly jumped a clear for the senior Whitaker on Thursday but as the eye searched down the familiar names of other British hopefuls – John’s talented but still rather reticent son Robert, his brother Michael, and Robert Smith (son of Harvey), who was to win a big class on Friday – it was the youngest competitor of all that you noticed.
On the ground, Ellen Whitaker stands next to parents Stephen and Carol as fair and bonny as any 16-year-old could be. But in the saddle she is a tall female top to the centaur-like partnership she is building with a giant, pale chestnut called Kanselier. Cantering into the swirling floodlights in front of the buzzing tiers of the crowd on the first night at Olympia is a daunting challenge for the most established of pairings. Yet Ellen and Kanselier cantered into it as if this was what their lives had been waiting for.
The next 35 seconds and 13 flawless leaps looked the perfect start of a destiny fulfilled. Ellen is the future. But will it come too late?