In an Irish Independent article this week, economist David McWilliams paid tribute to the British Olympic squad, who 20 years ago had languished in 36th place in the medals table, but this year came second with a total haul of 67 medals, including three in equestrian, 12 more than at London four years ago and their biggest haul in over 100 years.
McWilliams pointed out that the British adopted a “no compromise” rule after the 1996 Olympics, whereby they refused to support financially sports where they were not performing.
He said: “This was a highly controversial move but it worked in terms of diverting cash into sports where they had some advantage or semblance of advantage. Their cycling team is probably the best example of this, where they have become dominant.”
In the article he commented that some mileage has been made in the media through weighting a country’s medal haul in proportion to its population.
So did Ireland do well here? No, not really. The top five countries at Rio, when weighted for population, were the Bahamas, Jamaica, Croatia, Fiji and New Zealand.
Such countries, says McWilliams, “completely overhauled their athletics using specialisation and central planning. Leaving sport, like economics, to chance just doesn’t work.”
So let us now return to the vexing question of Irish equestrian sport at the Olympics.
To recap, in the “flagship” end of equestrian sport, Ireland achieved the following at Rio:
Dressage: One individual 18th place, no team qualified
Eventing: Team eighth place, one individual ninth place
Show Jumping: One individual 50th place, no team qualified
Show jumping is recognised in Ireland as a high profile sport, and despite the presence of a heavily-staffed governing body, Horse Sport Ireland, it shows little promise of pulling itself up off the Olympic canvas, so to speak, with no team qualified in the last 12 years.
Longines world rankings, which measure the monthly performances of over 2,000 riders worldwide, can never be the ultimate guide to suitability for Olympic selection, as was proven this week when a low-ranked rider, Britain’s Nick Skelton, took the individual Gold medal at Rio. (However, Mr. Skelton had had over 40 years experience at the top end of the sport when he was selected for Rio, and was a multi medallist at both Olympic and European levels.)
Nevertheless, in the absence of any other reliable and official measurement, the Longines rankings do give a reasonably good picture of how riders are performing at the top end of the international circuit.
In that context, it is interesting to look at the facts below.
1) In show jumping there has been no Irish team qualification for the Olympics since Athens in 2004
2) At the time of Rio nomination Ireland has seven riders in the Longines Top 100, yet did not qualify for Rio.
France also has seven riders in the top 100, and did qualify for Rio.
Switzerland had five riders in the top 100, and did qualify for Rio.
Sweden had four riders in the Longines top 100, and did qualify for Rio
Spain had two riders in the Longines Top 100 and did qualify for Rio.
Ukraine had two riders in the Longines Top 100, and did qualify for Rio.
The only teams with more riders in the top 100 than Ireland were:
USA with 12 riders
Germany with 11 riders
Netherlands with 10 riders.
Aside from the Longines rankings, the excellence of Irish riders is also known worldwide, and many have now made their home in the USA, where their talents are fully recognised and where financial rewards are greater.
Yet, still, we have been unable to qualify a team for the Olympics. And three times in a row?
When it was failure just twice in a row – Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012 – Horse Sport Ireland made a dramatic announcement that a special independent report was being commissioned to examine the problem. Thirty-one experts were to be interviewed during the process, many of them international riders. Submissions would also be requested.
The announcement, in part, read as follows:
“Horse Sport Ireland has confirmed that Jane Williams, Managing Director of the Sia Group, has been engaged to carry out a review of the Senior Show Jumping High Performance Programme.
“Horse Sport Ireland announced that they would carry out the review following the show jumping team’s performance in Madrid, where the team did not achieve Olympic qualification. Ireland still has a chance of securing up to two individual show jumping places at the London games.
“The purpose of the review will be to identify the key factors that contributed to the Irish team’s non-qualification for the Olympic Games and will make recommendations for changes in the programme for the future.
“As part of the review the riders and team management as well as Horse Sport Ireland and Irish Sports Council personnel will be interviewed.”
When the SIA Report, as it came to be known, was finally completed, it was kept under wraps for over six months before being released to the media or the public. No coherent explanation was ever given for this delay.
So what did the SIA report say?
Well, its 26 pages would be difficult to condense here, but inter alia, it recommended the following:
“Role of High Performance Manager
As has been done in other countries, to meet the very demanding roles in Senior show jumping competition, Horse Sport Ireland might assess whether it needs a High Performance Manager to manage the High Performance programmes at all levels in show jumping. A High Performance Manager would be charged with the development of a High Performance Programme that includes all of the elements found in comparable programmes in high achieving nations. Such a programme should address the key elements that the Review has highlighted as needing attention.
This would also require that the role of the Chef d’Equipe be re-examined and an assessment made as to whether the High Performance Manager should double as the Chef d’Equipe or if there are two roles to be undertaken. The job descriptions for the equivalent roles in other nations that qualified for the Olympics are available for comparative purposes.
Improvements have been achieved in the relationships between team members over the last few years. There are further enhancements to the team ethos that could underpin the team’s performance including an increased sense of ‘team’; a shared understanding of what the Irish Show Jumping Team is and aspires to, its norms and expectations, rules and roles; induction and exit for joining and retiring members; clarity on the differences between other teams and a team representing your country etc.
Sports psychologist and other technical supports
Retain the services of a sports psychologist and make these services mandatory for major competitions for a specified period or for a specified duration of service.
Other technical supports such as coaching, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and other sports science to be integrated into the new High Performance plan for show jumping, as appropriate. “
The report added that “the actions identified by the review should be implemented immediately, (and) Horse Sport Ireland should lead the development of an Overall Development Plan for Irish Show Jumping”
So, this leads to a few questions:
Were any of these recommendations implemented, whether immediately or at all?
If they were, why didn’t they work?
How much did all this cost?
Curiously, this was not the first time Horse Sport Ireland had announced a plan to improve various areas of the sport, including high performance.
In 2008, shortly after it had taken over governance of the sport from the former Equestrian Federation of Ireland, Horse Sport Ireland published a “draft strategic plan for consultation”.
This included the following paragraph:
This area deals with improving physical and administrative infrastructure as well as education and High Performance structures. The organisation intends to produce a separate High Performance Plan by the end of the year in consultation with the Irish Sports Council and the relevant affiliates. Training and education will be a priority for Horse Sport Ireland. A number of new initiatives are already underway and the plan sets out further programmes to be rolled out over the next four years.”
To the casual onlooker, it might seem that the governing body is very good at spending money on plans and reports, but not so good at doing anything about the results or recommendations contained in the reports.
Unless something more radical is accomplished, Irish show jumping faces the ultimate humiliation – not qualifying a team for Tokyo in 2020. That would be four times in a row. For a country so rich in rider and equine talent, this is unthinkable.
It may be time now for someone else to look at how the sport is run both nationally and internationally, particularly with regard to show jumping. Horse Sport Ireland’s efforts have quite obviously not been successful. Tough decisions may have to be taken, from the top downwards.
Sport Ireland, the former Irish Sports Council, is currently conducting yet another review, but once again this will almost certainly contain just advice and recommendations, giving HSI the option of ignoring them, as it has apparently done with other reviews in the past.
Perhaps the new Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, might seek to make his mark by stepping in with a programme of sweeping changes to the prevailing system.
Something needs to be done. And it’s not another committee meeting or “special report”, that’s for sure.