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Independent.ie

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Ireland's horse power in the race for gold

Siobhn English

With final selection for London 2012 looming, it is decision time for Ireland's management

AS the final qualification and selection process for London 2012 comes to a close in the coming days, Team Ireland is preparing for what is expected to be one of the busiest Olympic Games in history.

Currently, there are 60 nominated athletes for the 14 (of 36 in total) sports of athletics, badminton, boxing, canoeing, cycling, equestrian, gymnastics, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming and triathlon.

However, this number is likely to rise again in the coming days, with several waiting for the call-up in swimming and athletics.

By the final cut-off date of July 10, Ireland may have close to 70 athletes at the opening ceremony on July 27.

Only in Sydney in 2000 was Ireland previously so well represented, with 64 athletes competing in 10 sports. That excluded show jumping, however, when the selectors made the controversial decision not to send a team.

At the time, they maintained it was due to a lack of suitable horse power; and what a waste of money it would have been to send below-average combinations some 11,000 miles around the world.

NIGHTMARE

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Lack of horse power, or the added nightmare of spiralling costs, are not an issue this time round, as Ireland will be represented across the Irish Sea by just two riders.

Though yet to be announced, the pair will join a full eventing team of five riders, along with dressage rider Anna Merveldt and pentathlete Natalya Coyle.

In addition, for the first time ever, Ireland will field a full equestrian team for the Paralympics, which open on August 29.

Their dressage competitions kick off at Greenwich Park the following day, when all 45 of Ireland's athletes will begin their quest for medals.

Though only four Irish riders are eligible to compete, those who did not make the cut can take comfort in knowing that they, too, contributed to this great feat.

Only individual riders have flown the Irish flag at previous Paralympic Games, including those in Beijing, Athens, Sydney and Atlanta.

This team qualification is the result of years of dedication by the high-performance squad and its hard-working trainers and supporters.

It has been eight years since this country fielded full teams in both show jumping and eventing at an Olympic Games, but Athens will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, for many years to come.

While there was minimal fallout when our eventing team failed to impress, with an eighth-place finish, the disqualification of the showjumping team when Cian O'Connor (Waterford Crystal) was stripped of Ireland's first and only equestrian medal resulted in a worldwide storm of controversy.

Fast forward four years to Hong Kong, and Ireland was in the spotlight once again when our sole showjumper Denis Lynch was disqualified following the discovery of a banned substance in his horse, Lantinus.

INNOCENCE

Though both pleaded their innocence, the Irish equestrian community was in disbelief that this could happen in two successive Olympic Games.

Move forward another four years, and O'Connor and Lynch are among just four riders -- along with Billy Twomey and Shane Sweetnam -- now vying for two places for London.

Irish showjumping team manager Robert Splaine has been faced with many difficult decisions over the years, but this week will see him face his toughest challenge yet.

Lynch and Twomey earned the two places for Ireland by virtue of their world rankings (Lynch is currently 16th and Twomey is 27th), but only Splaine will determine if they deserve the slot, or whether another horse and rider combination could stand a better chance of winning a medal.

All four riders have been given every opportunity to prove themselves with their respective horses in recent months, so speculation will be rife in the coming days as Splaine prepares to make his final decision.

Facing an equally difficult task this week is the eventing high-performance manager Ginny Elliot.

Last month she named 10 riders and 11 horses on her shortlist, but she must now reduce that number to five combinations.

TREMENDOUS

The introduction of the three-star event in Ballindenisk, Co Cork in the spring proved instrumental in compiling this list, as did the tremendous results gained by Irish riders at the recent Tattersalls International Horse Trials.

Going on recent performances by Irish event riders at the Olympics, Elliot will be waiting until the final hour in a bid to make the right call.

The temperatures in London will be kinder to the Irish equestrian team as a whole, but the wait will be unbearable.

Indo Farming