A few interesting things happened in the Eventing world last week. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) decided that helmet cameras were allowed (a firm decision made after several governing bodies panicked last autumn – and they’ve done so in good time for the start of the 2015 season); Leslie Law, the second British rider in history to win an individual Olympic gold medal in Eventing (co-incidentally the first – Richard Meade – sadly died last week) announced that he has accepted a coaching role with the US team (Law has been based in the US since 2006, but now adds himself to the list of highly successful British event riders to take their talent and use it to coach another nation); Zara Phillips modelled an interesting hat and fielded questions about her nefarious uncle; Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) stood up to one of their top athletes.
It was a busy week for Eventing news, but the focus for today will be the final item.
At the end of December, ESNZ announced their 2015 High Performance squad. Seven riders were named, none of them were Andrew Nicholson. Given that he notified ESNZ in October that he didn’t wish to be considered for 2015, this shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Although, apparently, it was a surprise to him. Nicholson and most of the rest of the Eventing world endured a frosty 2014, which began with a very sweary interview regarding compatriot Jock Paget (who, at the time, was suspended from all competition due to doping allegations). It was always going to be an interesting year for all equestrian sport, as 2014 – Year of the Horse – was a World Equestrian Games (WEG) year. Nicholson was selected for the New Zealand Eventing team and duly competed, though stories emerged that it had been a far from happy campaign: the seasoned competitor reportedly had arguments with ESNZ and the support team provided – Nicholson alleges that his horse was neglected, a very strong accusation at the FEI’s flagship event, given that the organisation continues to keenly push welfare issues to the fore.
Things, of course, didn’t end there. Following his public disapproval of Paget and his blatant dissatisfaction with ESNZ, Nicholson capped the year by throwing his toys out of the pram for real, and took his hat out of the ring for 2015. When he regretted the decision barely two months later and went crawling back, ESNZ dug their heels in, said “thanks, but no thanks” and named a squad without him. Given that Nicholson ended the year sixth in the FEI Eventing rankings (though only the second-best Kiwi), this is a powerful statement. Some may say that ESNZ – particularly given that New Zealand are yet to qualify an Eventing team for Rio 2016 and are rapidly running out of opportunities to do so – have cut their nose off to spite their face. I say good for them – it’s rare that a governing body stands up to prodigious talent in such a manner. It’s uncommon for a veteran of the scene is shown that they are too big of their boots and the administration are sick of their attitude. It’s not often that someone like Andrew Nicholson is force-fed humble pie.
Nicholson may still have the last laugh: there are two ways in which New Zealand can currently qualify an Eventing team for Rio – the opportunity is available at the Asia-Pacific Championships, or by qualifying a “composite” team via the FEI rankings. Given that New Zealand currently has seven riders in the top 50 (including Nicholson, and six of those named in the current High Performance squad), the latter is looking promising (Olympic Eventing teams are comprised of up to five horse and rider combinations), and would be a way for Nicholson to compete without being selected by his own governing body (who he clearly isn’t on good terms with). Despite the fact that Nicholson may qualify anyway (or make genuine amends with his governing body), it’s nice to see administrators who are unwilling to pander to egos. Plus, even if Nicholson doesn’t learn his lesson prior to re-entering the fold, the incident sends a clear message to any other riders who may be considering similar behaviour – nobody, not even seven-time Olympians who rank inside the world top ten, is above being dropped for poor conduct.