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Never underestimate the capacity of equestrian sports to spark Olympic controversy.
At the Athens Games in 2004, Germany’s Bettina Hoy was deprived of the three-day eventing gold medal by a technical infringement. With Beijing 2008, the issue has been the decision to stage equestrian events in Hong Kong. And already London 2012’s equestrian plans have attracted criticism – and this with the Games still more than five years away.
Two areas of concern in particular have emerged: the size of the planned venue at Greenwich Park, which critics fear might be too small to accommodate a sufficiently testing cross-country course and adequate spectators; and the choice of Sue Benson to design the course.
Sitting in her kitchen near Salisbury plain in Wiltshire, it is clear that Benson, 55, was rattled by the criticism, that followed her design of a course at Bramham Park, near Leeds, last year that she acknowledges was “not my best effort”.
“I was shocked at the depth of feeling, yes,” she recalls. “I knew that not everyone would think it was a great choice. One accepts that . . . But I didn’t expect the depth of feeling to come across as it did.”
It is not long, however, before the toughness shows through that has seen her excel in what can be a lonely profession – and prior to that helped her compete as an international rider in a demanding, sometimes dangerous, sport for nearly two decades.
“There were too many falls in ratio to the number of entries [at Bramham],” she says. “But actually it was so hot – the temperatures were in the 90s. There were an awful lot of hot and tired riders and horses and they weren’t all making great decisions.
“I have taken enough flak for something which wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the press have made out.”
Benson has bounced back from the setback, producing a course for the Boekelo International event in the Netherlands with which she says she was “unbelievably thrilled”. However, in the circumstances it is probably true to say that the course she designs for this year’s Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro will attract especially close scrutiny.
London 2012 will mark the third time in four Olympics that the cross-country course has been designed by a British designer, with Mike Etherington-Smith fulfilling the role in 2000 in Sydney and 2008 in Hong Kong. So here, it seems, is a sporting discipline in which the UK still leads the world.
Does Benson herself feel that Greenwich Park gives her enough space to work with?
My own calculations suggest that the park is significantly bigger than the area allotted to cross-country at the Athens Olympics in 2004, though not all of it can be used. The Athens course, moreover, came in for some criticism. And spectator demand is likely to be much higher in London than in the Greek capital – particularly if British riders such as Zara Phillips continue to do well. The Queen’s granddaughter last year won the individual eventing gold medal at the World Equestrian Games in Germany and became the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.
“It is going to have to twist and turn,” Benson says, observing that the course in 2012 will have to run a minimum of 6,270m. “You have got a very steep hill with flat at the bottom and flat at the top. The steep hill is a bit of a problem because I don’t want to take them up it too often because I don’t want to exhaust them and it is almost too steep to bring them directly down.”
Asked if she would be allowed to reduce the gradient, she says she will “jolly well try to use what I have got . . . But if I cannot get the distance and I cannot get a flowing course, then obviously we have got to think about levelling a bit of ground.”
She says it is impossible to pinpoint how much room will be left for spectators until she has plotted the course – including easier options for less experienced nations and riders.
“There is a beautiful rose garden, surrounded by these marvellous hedges, and I [would] die to have a jump just across the corner of these hedges. But will they let me?” she asks in illustration of the sort of questions that will need to be resolved. “It is reasonable to assume that spectators will be limited.”
What is not in doubt, of course, is that Greenwich, with heritage attractions such as the Cutty Sark tea clipper and the prime meridian line dividing the eastern and western hemispheres, will be a stunning venue for television. “They have got to jump across the line,” Benson enthuses. “You can’t have that and not build a fence right on the line.”
And television, not live spectators, is what puts most bread on the Olympic table in the 21st century. Of the more than $4bn in revenues the movement generated between 2001 and 2004, more than half – 53 per cent – came from broadcasting; just 11 per cent from ticketing.