Preparing for Olympics a challenge for equestrians

Preparing for Olympics a challenge for equestrians

Aug 01, 2008

When the equestrian events of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games are held Aug. 9-20, the world will see if China has met the numerous challenges facing the successful staging of those events. Concern was raised, even from the beginning of China's Olympic bid, in three main areas:

  • The August weather in Beijing is extremely hot and humid, and many countries questioned whether successful equine competition could take place there at that time.
  • Travel to China involves long flights from many countries and that, coupled with the threats of avian flu, Japanese encephalitis and equine influenza, prompted Chinese officials to impose lengthy quarantine protocols for horses attending the games. Many riders felt their horses would not be able to perform at their best with such a long disruption from their normal schedules.
  • China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and, until recently, Beijing air quality routinely measured five times higher than the safety level recommended by the World Health Organization. The performance of both equine and human athletes is affected greatly by particulate matter and related air pollution. Many competitors vowed that China would have to guarantee clean air before they would attend.

Soon we'll see how China has addressed these three challenges.

Concerns about competing in heat and humidity are not new. "On to Atlanta '96," a 1994 publication from the FEI Samsung International Equine Sports Medicine Conference held in Atlanta that year, raised the issue but stated there did not appear to be any way around the problem if equestrian events were to remain part of the Olympics.

The 1996 games represented the first time equestrian Olympic events were to be held in a very hot and humid environment, and veterinarians and exercise physiology researchers began an initiative to find out more about hot-weather competition with the goal of being able to hold games in stressful environments while assuring the safety of equine athletes.

As a result of this initiative, many new cooling methods, such as the misting fans now seen at most sporting events, conditioning and acclimatization techniques and other innovations have become standard for use by athletes competing in hot weather. The 2008 games have bene-fited from research done at Atlanta and from work done in preparation for Olympic Games in Barcelona and Seoul, where hot temperatures played a role.

The 2008 weather issue

Because of poorer air quality in mainland China and difficulties ensuring a true disease-free zone, the equestrian portion of the 2008 games was moved to Hong Kong. Chinese officials cited the nearly 100 years of racing history and the expertise of the Hong Kong Jockey Club as factors which made that location a natural choice.

The jumping and dressage events will be at the Hong Kong Olympic Equestrian Venue at Shatin, and the cross-country event will be at the Beas River facility, converted from two golf courses. The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) has invested over $109 million in these facilities, which feature four blocks of newly constructed, air-conditioned stalls capable of housing 200 horses. These air-conditioned stalls and an enclosed, air-conditioned arena should allow the horses to perform close to their maximal levels.

All of the competitions, except for the cross-country portion of the eventing program, will be at night. Up to 30 tons of ice will be available daily to help cool down the horses. All of this attention is warranted because Hong Kong temperatures in August can easily be in the 90s, with 70 percent or higher humidity.

"Most horses should be able to acclimatize in about 10 days," says Dr. Christopher Riggs, the Hong Kong Jockey Club head of Veterinary Services, but it is also worth noting that the HKJC does not hold any meets and no summer racing goes on in Hong Kong. "The conditions do present difficulties," admits Dr. John McEwen, chairman of the FEI Veterinary Committee, "but every effort is made to ensure that neither the training nor competition sessions are in any way detrimental to the welfare of the horse."