With the sporting world being driven largely by emotions and money, there’s barely a month which passes without some sort of revelation or ruckus. Whether it’s an internationally famous athlete confessing to an enormous cover-up operation on a talk show, a player and manager involved in an exchange of words – and equipment – in the locker room, or one person pointing out another’s suspiciously-improved performance, rumours and foul play are never far away.
Except, amazingly, within equestrianism. Eventing in particular is famous for being honourable and innocent, something that I would put down to the lack of money involved in the sport – this is a separate issue which, as the current season comes to a close, is being hotly debated: prize money is notoriously terrible and riders are campaigning to change this. Unfortunately the plan has backfired somewhat so far, as the powers that be have announced that prize money will be increased… as will competition entry fees. Ordinarily, this would probably be the big news story as the 2013 season ends, were it not for two vials of blood which were drawn in September.
One of the most exciting seasons in eventing will not end without a twist: one of the star horses of the season – ridden by a man who is becoming very successful – tested positive for a banned substance having won one of the sport’s most prestigious events. Pending further investigation, horse and rider are both suspended, as are another horse – who also tested positive for the same drug – and rider who share the same base as the first pair.
Amazingly, positive drug tests are rare in equestrian sport: if you were wanting to use and abuse drugs, horse sports would seem an easy option, given that animals can’t speak. Just as human athletes in other sports, horses are tested rigorously in the following scenarios: when they win, from random samples, and if their performance or behaviour is judged to be suspicious. It’s rare that anything untoward is found, which is why positive results to the winner and runner up of a famous competition is shocking.
What makes the case more distressing is the fact that rider and horse – Jock Paget and Clifton Promise – have had an incredible season. It began in May with a win at Badminton, one of the most famous top level eventing competitions in the world, an event on the calendar which aspiring eventers grow up dreaming of not just winning, but merely riding around. Burghley isn’t the final event on the European calendar these days, but it’s as prestigious as Badminton and, along with an early season event in Kentucky, the trio form eventing’s “Grand Slam”. Due to the timing of Badminton and Kentucky, riders are able to claim a Grand Slam win if they hold all three titles at once, rather than having to win inside a particular season – however, since its inception, the Grand Slam has only been won once, and on that occasion the rider did happen to complete the feat within the same season. Having won Badminton, Paget would have had an eye on the Grand Slam despite not having yet won in Kentucky, and will have planned his season accordingly: the idea was always that Clifton Promise would finish his 2013 season at Burghley – hopefully with a win – and rest up for the winter in preparation for Kentucky in the spring, missing the final top-flight event in Pau, which is currently taking place.
The plan came together: Paget rode to glory at Burghley, and Clifton Promise was given a pat and turned out for the winter… until the positive test result returned from the lab earlier this month and the eventing world became unsettled by the incident.
As the reaction continues to unfold within the equestrian press, fans and equestrians are awaiting additional test results anxiously (two samples are taken from every horse, and if the B sample is to be tested, analysis is completed several weeks after the first sample is assessed). The weekly equestrian bible, Horse and Hound, published their first analysis of the ongoing incident earlier this week, and it was with a heavy heart that I read their assessment today.
I found the piece to be incredibly damning of Paget and his team, a sad tone which mimics that of the FEI (equestrianism’s international governing body), who take a “guilty until proven innocent” stance. The FEI generally do a good job – one of their guiding principles is that animal welfare is paramount – but the process still seems drawn out and painful, and this to someone who isn’t directly involved!
Whilst the press have appeared to be quick to judge, many fans are standing by Paget, offering messages of support via social media and awaiting test results on the B sample as well as investigations by Paget and his team into other factors which may have caused the presence of this substance in the horses’ blood. When further contemplating the situation today, I began to draw my own conclusions regarding the emotions surrounding this case.
As I mentioned earlier, sport is rarely without scandal. I have grown up in an age where the sophistication of science is allowing the detection of foul play to become easier, but there is also increased potential for cheating in the first place – science is playing catch up with itself, as athletes find new and less-detectable drugs with reasonable frequency. As well as drugs, there are recurrent debates regarding the gender of athletes – mercifully, something which doesn’t affect equestrianism, as both human and equine participants of both genders compete on equal terms – with some athletes being subjected to ludicrous scrutiny.
I observed the Lance Armstrong scandal, for example as an unemotional bystander: cycling isn’t something I’m a fan of and I didn’t feel attached to the situation in that way. Similarly, when Caster Semenya’s achievements were queried, I felt detached – I find athletic feats impressive, but they aren’t something I follow religiously. The closest feeling I’ve experienced to the emotions I’m going through at the moment were during the investigations into spot fixing in cricket. As a fan, it was a dark cloud over the game, making spectators doubt the integrity of the match in front of them, and must have been disheartening for the innocent players involved too. But the evidence was conclusive, the perpetrators were punished and life has fortunately gone on.
I currently worry that the relaxed yet competitive and athletically-impressive sport which I enjoy will change forever, whatever the outcome of this incident. Some blame is currently being placed on the openness of equestrian sports, the lack of security surrounding horses at events. Racehorses are treated very differently: guarded closely, largely due to the amount of money involved in the sport and the fact that it exists due to gambling – integrity cannot be compromised and security is paramount. Eventing competitions are still largely laidback, friendly affairs, where it’s easy to observe what are usually more private moments for professional athletes. Some of the abiding memories of my formative riding years are being able to walk up to the collecting ring at Hickstead and watch my heroes warm up, leaning against the fence of the ring with grooms and owners. It would be sad for those who follow in my footsteps not to have the same opportunity.
So at the moment, I am sad to be bearing witness to my favourite sport changing, possibly for the worse, because of an isolated incident which could just be a misunderstanding. I hope that the truth is discovered in as quick and painless a manner as possible, and that innocent parties maintain their positive reputations. I hope that the sport doesn’t run and hide, making a knee jerk reaction. And I hope that it doesn’t happen again, because no sport needs to be thought of as dirtier than it needs to be.