Saudi success in show jumping underscores shift
Saudi Arabia's success in show jumping has shifted equestrian's order, and could help keep the sport in the Olympics.
The Gulf kingdom known for its Arabian endurance horses has joined the show jumping establishment of the U.S. and Europe. It produced a team bronze medal in London and all three riders advanced to the individual medal round.
Kamal Bahamdan, a veteran of five Olympics, just missed the individual bronze Wednesday, coming in fourth after two time faults but no dropped fences in two rounds at Greenwich Park.
''We smelled the medal,'' he said, referring to his mare, Noblesse des Tess. ''We didn't get it but we smelled it.''
Saudi Arabia appeared on the equestrian show jumping map in at the Sydney Games in 2000 when Khaled Al Eid won an individual bronze. He qualified for London but had to withdraw in July after his horse, Presley Boy, developed laminitis, a painful inflammation of the hoof.
Some had considered the Sydney medal a blip, an aberration, but in fact it was a project now 20 years in the making to turn the kingdom so long associated with the Arabian breed into a show jumping power.
''The horse has always been a big and important part of our culture,'' Bahamdan said after his ride. ''You see it in paintings, in art and poetry. We grew up with horses all around us.''
The Sydney medal, he said, showed not only Saudis but the rest of the world that with the right horses and training, Saudi Arabia could make it in show jumping as well.
And the country has the good fortune of being able to have the best.
While Bahamdan, a 41-year-old Boston University-educated financier, owns his own horses, other team members have the Saudi king to thank for theirs, including Prince Abdullah Al Saud, the king's grandson, who ended the day with a disappointing two fences down on Davos. A top show jumper can easily cost $1 million or more.
The Saudi team horses are mostly trained in Belgium and the Netherlands, and they have one of the best support crews that money can buy. The team trainer is Belgian Stanny Van Paesschen, a three-time Olympic equestrian. Their team manager is Dutchman Rogier van Iersel, a veteran international show jumping judge. The veterinarians are German and French and the stable manager is from Canada.
''They are tremendously lucky to have phenomenal funding,'' said Catherine Austen of Horse & Hound magazine. ''But I think we have to give them a lot of credit for being here and jumping well. If they'd all got knocked down in the first round we could have said 'They bought their horses and they can't ride them.' But clearly they can.''
The next step, she said, is for the kingdom to start nurturing the sport: breeding horses and establishing training programs for the next generation, making equestrian more of a homegrown sport and part of a gradual process ''rather than just buying the top horses and going.''
''I think it's huge for the Arab nations to win a bronze medal here, and hopefully it will encourage more people in the Middle East to take up show jumping,'' she said.
The Saudi team had a setback this year when two leading team members, Al Eid and Abdullah Waleed Sharbatly, who won silver in the 2010 World Equestrian Games, were sanctioned by the International Equestrian Federation after their horses tested positive for anti-inflammatories at separate events in the Middle East.
The original eight-month bans were reduced to two months by the Court of Arbritration for Sport, enabling them to compete in London. Al Eid withdrew because of his injured horse, but Sharbatly was part of the bronze-medal winning team, though he didn't advance to Wednesday's individual round.
While the Saudi success is good for the kingdom, it's also good for equestrian's Olympic future. One of the criteria the IOC uses to determine which sports to keep in the Olympics and which to remove is its geographic penetration and participation. Equestrian sports in general have long been the domain of Europe, British Commonwealth countries and the Americas. Equestrian is also very expensive to stage - another drawback for the IOC in these tight times.
''From a sport perspective, it is a really good thing to see nations from Asia and the Middle East here,'' said Jennifer Bryant, author of ''Olympic Equestrian,'' the definitive history of the sport at the Olympics. ''And it's an even better thing that they're starting to do well because they don't look like they're just being sent for the sake of being sent. They're actually competitive.''
The next hurdle for Saudi Arabia is to include women on its equestrian team. The conservative kingdom sent two female athletes to London, including Sarah Attar, a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen who ran in the 800 meters Wednesday and finished last.
A young Saudi rider, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a bronze medalist in the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, had a chance at making the show jumping team. But she failed to qualify after her horse was sidelined by injury and missed a month's work during the qualifying period.
''She is young, but there are many others like her,'' Bahamdan said. ''And the good news is that when we see (Canadian show jumping veteran) Ian Millar competing in his 10th games, I think it's never too late.''
Associated Press writer Margaret Freeman contributed to this report.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield