Sticks and stones

As the FEI continues to redefine bureaucracy, Jock Paget took matters into his own hands this week.  The eventing season is heating up in the northern hemisphere, and with it being a World Championship year, results and points mean more to riders than perhaps they might.  With the official hearing regarding Clifton Promise’s positive drug test still pending – although, finally, a date has been set – Paget succumbed to the inevitable and asked the FEI to change the Burghley 2013 result, so that although he remains in limbo, the rest of the eventing world can be assured of where they stand.

All very noble, the press have decided: rosettes, prize money and trophies will be re-allocated; ranking points will be adjusted; riders, owners, sponsors and other stakeholders will be happy.  With the exception, apparently – and perversely – of the person who stands to benefit the most.  Andrew Nicholson is now the winner of back-to-back Burghleys on the same horse, and could be only the second rider to win eventing’s Grand Slam (though this writer would argue that, as with tennis, his wouldn’t be a true Grand Slam).  But Nicholson isn’t content with the possibilities before him, because he’s too busy fighting with the bee in his bonnet which has now been killed by Paget.

Nicholson has been quoted as saying that he’s, “had enough of Jock and the doping thing” (fair enough – Paget’s probably had more than enough of it himself, as it’s been going on for seven months and counting), repeatedly referring to the situation as, “a load of bullshit” (also true – the FEI have dealt with this painfully slowly, embarrassing themselves and the sport of eventing, as well as causing a great deal of unnecessary uncertainty for far more athletes than the two riders directly involved).

Whether Nicholson was unduly provoked during this interview or the quotes have been misinterpreted is a different issue: the impression given is that he’s come out of an ugly situation with a literal win, but he’s behaving ungraciously.  One might – maybe, if pushed – make allowances for this kind of reaction if Nicholson were the one under the microscope, or if he weren’t accustomed to dealing with the media, but neither of these things are true.  Nicholson’s an undisputed veteran of the sport, six times an Olympian and winner of multiple major titles.  And the final kicker?  Nicholson and Paget have been teammates, and possibly will be again – both are New Zealanders, and rode on the same team during London 2012.  Were it not for Paget’s current suspension and potential ban, they would undoubtedly have ridden together again at Worlds later this summer.

Sports such as eventing which are played out mostly as individual competitions, with athletes occasionally coming together to form a team are awkward.  Nicholson, Paget and many others spend the majority of their season fighting tooth and nail for individual titles and, until the moment that teams are selected and horses are declared sound, they’re still fighting because, of course, one of them could be selected for the team over the other.  Once selected, it must be tricky to shake off those feelings of rivalry and pull together, but athletes surely feel a sense of national unity at least during those competitions, if not outside of them.

But if it is the case that Nicholson can’t put the situation behind him, take the win and support his compatriot, he wouldn’t be the first athlete to take a dig at another sportsman.  Another recent one-sided war of words took place in 2012, but during the run up to competition rather than in the aftermath.  US swimmer Tyler Clary – who, at the time, wasn’t even an Olympian and hadn’t yet been selected for his country’s team in 2012 – made more than a slight dig: he poked his country’s biggest bear.

Clary was 23 at the time, and had spent several years prior to the 2008 Beijing Games – which he failed to qualify for – training alongside national treasure and future Greatest Olympian of All Time Michael Phelps.  Phelps, who is four years Clary’s senior and who, even prior to the 2008 Games had secured his place in the history books several times over.  Clary dared to say what some people had undoubtedly thought prior and since – that Phelps didn’t train hard, but instead relied upon his natural gift for his sport combined with his astonishingly appropriate physique to literally propel him to his achievements.

Clary’s comments were met with shock not because of the content, but due to the sheer audacity and rudeness.  Of course, Phelps hasn’t always been a golden boy outside the pool, but Clary demonstrated a ridiculous amount of nerve by going on the record, and put himself and at least one other athlete in an uncomfortable position given that it was looking likely that they would be teammates a few weeks later.

The upshot?  Phelps waited and, as he explained himself, allowed his swimming to do the talking.  Clary, apparently, apologised personally and privately – whether he did so of his own volition is unclear – Phelps allegedly accepted and the rest is literally history, an example of a younger, less experienced and relatively unproven athlete making a serious error of judgement which the senior campaigner handled with apparent grace.

Nicholson, however, was not born yesterday.  And it will be some time before Paget will be able to let his riding do the talking.  In the meantime, will Nicholson apologise or clarify?  Possibly.  Should he walk away from this with the knowledge that it is better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?  Absolutely.

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