One More Year: The Olympic Games Remain a Symbol of Hope in a Sea of Unknowns

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY CATIE STASZAK

As a journalist and commentator, I have two main fears in the workplace: not knowing, and not being able to find the answer. 

On March 13, equestrians received the email heard ‘round the world as the FEI recommended the cancellation of FEI events due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. The USEF followed suit, strongly recommending the suspension of USEF licensed competitions.

Suddenly, there were far more questions than answers.

The bustling winter circuit in Wellington, FL came to a screeching halt on Monday, March 16 as the final two weeks of the Winter Equestrian Festival and the Adequan Global Dressage Festival were cancelled. Roadways quieted, farms shut down, and the only booming business in town was the local Publix grocery store (and anyone selling toilet paper, rubbing alcohol, or hand sanitizer).

As major international show jumping events announced their cancellations and postponements one by one, it aligned with the mainstream sporting world. Major League Baseball postponed its iconic Opening Day; the NCAA Tournament, better known as “March Madness,” announced its cancellation; and both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League halted operations mid-season. Anyone turning on their television set in hopes of watching a live sporting event found only replays from the ESPN archives or Coronavirus play-by-play from CNN Medial Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Each day brought with it a new set of restrictions and scary statistics. International borders closed. Schools transitioned to virtual learning. Restaurants could only offer take-out orders. “Shelter in place” orders were issued. 

Through it all, one event remained on the calendar as a beacon of hope: the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

The 2020 Games were set to be my first. I relished the opportunity to work alongside the incredible team at Olympic Broadcasting Services and realize a childhood dream. If any event could persevere, I was certain, the Olympic Games could, but as conditions around the world continued to worsen, those hopes dwindled.

What an honor it must be to host an Olympic Games, but I did not envy the organizing committee in Tokyo that had to make such a difficult, impactful decision. On March 23, the International Olympic Committee announced it would use the following four weeks to make a determination regarding the Games. That timeline quickly accelerated, and in less than 48 hours, the Games were officially postponed.

There are far-reaching effects to this decision, particularly for equestrians. Riders must not just prepare themselves to compete; they must also have a horse peaking in top form to contend for a Championship. Every equine athlete will be a year older when the Games get underway, which will no doubt hinder some riders and greatly benefit others with promising young talent in their strings. Those on the cusp of qualifying for Team USA’s show jumping Short List will have to nearly start over again, as selection procedures will have to be redefined. Not to mention, the entire competition calendar will have to be reconstructed, impacting organizing committees and venues, as well as the judges, stewards, office staff, ingate and ring crews, and countless other individuals that rely on events for their livelihoods.

On a grassroots level, our world’s quarantined state has left many without even the ability to ride their horses—to hug them, visit with them, and lean on the emotional outlet that keeps so many of us going. 

There is no doubting it: These cancellations, postponements, and #StayAtHome orders are absolutely the right thing to do. The IOC, FEI and USEF have done a great job navigating the many unknowns and keeping in regular communication with the community. We all need to do our part to flatten the curve and shorten the duration of this pandemic and its consequential quarantines—for everyone’s health and wellbeing. These are short term sacrifices for long-term gains, and hopefully we’ll never have to endure such unprecedented times again. Our world hasn’t seen quite the likes of this ever before.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

There have been positives, and I believe these circumstances can bring out the best in people. EquiFit is allocating some of its resources to create masks for health care workers and the general public. The Show Jumping Relief Fund was started to help individuals in the equestrian community particularly impacted by show closures. Beezie Madden is even hosting virtual riding lessons.

Which does beg the question, will we see Beezie at the next Olympics? Both Madden and Canada’s Eric Lamaze announced that they would be redirecting their focuses from competing at the championship level to developing riders and horses after Tokyo 2020. I’m banking that neither want to go out this way. Perhaps the Olympic postponement is a blessing in disguise in that we might get to see these two legendary riders continue to compete at the very top levels of the sport for an extra 12 months. 

On March 30, new dates for Tokyo were officially set. Still to be called Tokyo 2020, the Olympic Games will now take place July 23 through August 8, 2021. In the months leading up to these new dates, the Olympic flame will remain lit—a proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.”

In a world facing such uncertainty, these dates are a comforting symbol of hope. There is now, after the two of the longest weeks in recent history (Is that really all it’s been?!), something to look forward to, something to dream of, and something to which we can count down.

Just one more year.