WESTBURY (Reuters) - Olympic host country China has pinned its hopes of equestrian success on a lanky Eton schoolboy sponsored by a Guangzhou property tycoon.
Last September, 18-year-old Alex Hua Tian, the son of an English mother and a Chinese father, swapped Eton’s coat-tails and top hat for riding helmet and outfit to train to become China’s first Olympic three-day eventer.
He qualified in June on not just one but four horses, no mean feat considering every horse has to be trialed separately, although only the fittest one will go to the Olympics with him.
“It does turn a few heads. I was the first Chinese rider to be registered with the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI), so I think a few people will possibly be a bit doubtful,” he said, next to his horse Chico, a dapple grey.
“But I think I have proved myself over the last year and hopefully they’ll be cheering me on.”
Five other Chinese riders will compete at the Olympics in show jumping and dressage, but Hua Tian is different from the others.
Not only is he the team’s only three-day eventer, but the caliber of his training sets him apart from his team mates too.
“I’ve had possibly the best start in riding anyone could have. In Hong Kong, the riding school had fun instructors, good ponies and we just had a blast whizzing around, jumping a few fences,” he said.
A real opportunity came when he left Hong Kong for Britain at the age of 10 and began training with husband and wife Lucinda and Clayton Fredericks. Clayton is a former World Cup eventing champion and the couple will be going to the Olympics themselves, albeit to represent Australia.
“It was all a bit of dream a couple of years ago when his mother came and said ‘Right, this is the plan,”’ said Lucinda.
“We all know each other very well and I think it’s very important he has the trust in us when he gets there. But he has to do a certain amount on his own -- I can’t be holding his hand all the time.”
Hua Tian also has a powerful sponsor. Jiang Fengcan has invested some 30 million yuan ($4.39 million) in the boy, whose mother says they have not had to spend anything on getting him to the Olympics.
Having spent so much of his life in Britain, Hua Tian’s Mandarin is not fluent and yet he bristles with pride at the idea of representing China at the Games.
“How do you explain how you feel about going to the biggest sporting event in the world for your home country? It’s the biggest honor. I try not to think about it really,” he said.
“In the end I am probably in the best situation out of all the people there because I’ve never been to the Olympics before, so I don’t know what I don’t know.”
His relaxed attitude will help him go far, say members of the 12-strong team that will accompany Hua Tian to Hong Kong, where the Beijing Olympic equestrian events will be held.
“He’s the most laid-back member of the whole team,” said Elodie Frost, who as head girl is responsible for the welfare of the horses.
“He does have his teenage-boy moments though. He loses his phone all the time and he does tend to leave things to the last minute,” she said, prompting murmurs of agreement from both Hua Tian’s mother and the team’s physiotherapist.
Family is important to Alex, especially his mother who managed all aspects of his riding career until the recent appointment of a chef d‘equipe in charge of the logistics.
“I wouldn’t have started riding without my mother,” Hua Tian said. “She’s always been a pony club mother -- well, that’s probably a bit harsh -- but she’s always been good about supporting me.”
Eton allowed Hua Tian a year off school to concentrate on his riding, but he goes back in September to finish off his A-levels (senior examinations).
“How can you say you’re missing out when you’re going to the Olympics?” he said.
“It’s a real shame that I‘m missing my friends from my year because they’ll have gone by the time I get back, but I don’t see it as missing as anything really.”
He has one week between the closing ceremony in Beijing and the start of term.
“I’ve put myself down for double maths, physics and chemistry, but I might skip one of those,” he said.
“I‘m not sure if I’ll be energetic enough to do all four after the Olympics.”
(Editing by Dave Thompson)