HONG KONG (Reuters) - More than a dozen riders have died in three-day eventing over the last two years and the Olympic cross-country course is under increased scrutiny because it is being built from scratch.
“It is a risk sport and there’s no pretending that it isn’t, but so is rock-climbing, so is motor-racing so is anything,” said Mike Etherington-Smith, who designed the course for the Games’ cross-country event at Beas River.
“If you don’t want to fall off, don’t get on a horse.”
Etherington-Smith, who built the course over some segments of the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling, said riders know “what the risks are.”
“All course designers all share ideas and experiences because we want to make the sport as safe as possible,” he said.
Some 50 fences carved with auspicious Chinese designs of dragons, pandas and cranes, some with water jumps, will be spread over the hilly terrain in one of Hong Kong’s more picturesque spots near its border with China.
Riders taking part in the three-day event — cross-country comes after dressage and before the show jumping phases — tried a shorter test course last year.
But their first chance to see the full, four-star championship cross-country course will come on August 7, just a few days before the competition starts.
“I’m convinced the course-builder did his best, especially on this level which is the world’s highest level, so we think everything is prepared to have the risks as much minimized as possible,” said Reinhard Wendt, head of the powerful German equestrian team in Hong Kong.
Two top contenders for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team were seriously injured of late. Darren Chiacchia fell into a coma after a fall in March, and Laine Ashker was left in critical condition after a bad spill during a Kentucky event in April.
Ashker’s horse Frodo Baggins failed to clear a fence and crashed on top of her, leaving her with a broken jaw, collar bone and multiple fractured ribs. Frodo Baggins suffered a fracture at the base of his skull and a lung injury, and had to be euthanized.
Sherelle Duke, one of Northern Ireland’s riders, died in 2006 when her horse fell on top of her during a cross-country event.
“It is a high risk sport and that is why people are doing it because they like the thrills of the sport. Everyone does it of their own free will,” said Yogi Breisner, manager of the British team.
Hong Kong equestrian authorities however are taking no risks.
A 2000-strong medical team has been set up to cope with all manner of emergencies during the equine event, with 24 medical teams to be stationed at Beas River alone.
“It will be the biggest operation by local medical professionals in terms of manpower resources being deployed,” Dr P.Y. Lam, the chief medical manager of the Olympic equestrian events, told reporters.
Designers of eventing courses have come under fire for making the tracks too difficult and pushing horses too close to their limits after a spate of high-profile deaths and serious injuries.
In particular, Mark Phillips, now a coach of the U.S. team, was harshly criticized for making the course too challenging after Chiacchia was injured on a course designed by Phillips.
The Federation Equestre Internationale, which governs the sport internationally, has also changed eventing rules to disqualify a rider if either horse or rider fell once, rather than twice, during a competition.
The change, which mirrors one passed by the United States Equestrian Federation in May, goes into effect on August 1.
Another change is the use of frangible pins in fences, which are aimed at minimizing serious accidents by making the fence give way should horses rap it with their legs while jumping.
“Statistically it is looking better but it will never be a risk-free sport,” said Breisner.
“If it wasn’t then we would not have the number of participants that we have, because they love taking these risks.”
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret and Raissa Kasolowsky)
(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)