Why India Doesn't have an Equestrian Olympic Team
Image: Amit Verma
t will be with mixed emotions that Mrityunjay Rathore takes his seat at Greenwich Park, the venue for equestrian events at the London Olympic Games. London’s oldest enclosed royal park will make for a scenic backdrop as horses and their riders compete in dressage, eventing and jumping, the three equestrian disciplines scheduled to be held between July 31 and August 9.
Rathore, 38, is one of the lucky people who will witness history being made. But for the Indian national champion in dressage, being a spectator is poor compensation for being denied a chance to compete in the Olympics yet again.
No, it isn’t as if he failed to qualify for the Games; that would have been a fair, if hard, pill to swallow. What bothers Rathore is that he didn’t get to participate in a single qualifying event, despite owning one of the best line-up of horses in India. One of them, a 12-year-old Australian thoroughbred, Rathore claims, is the country’s only three-star horse (see box 'Star Power').
“Indian quarantine regulations do not allow Olympic qualifiers to be held here; in fact, there isn’t a single qualifier held anywhere in Asia. Competing in the qualifiers in Europe is an option, but their quarantine rules make transporting horses time-consuming and expensive and we don’t have the money,” Rathore told Forbes India.
The twin issues of quarantine laws and inadequate budgets have tied down Indian equestrian sports for years now, directly impacting representation at major events. In fact, no horseman has worn the national colours in the Olympics since 2000, when a solitary equestrian flew the India flag.
Part of the reason is the continuing international perception of India as a “disease-prone” country. Consequently, no major equestrian sport-playing country—mostly Western European nations (including the UK), Australia, New Zealand and some countries in South America—is likely to be keen to sign a treaty with India that acknowledges parity in conditions and recognises testing systems, thereby cutting down quarantine periods for horses transported between the countries to a week or 10 days.
Without such a treaty, the shortest route for an Indian equestrian headed to the UK is a complicated one: He would need to fly his horse to Malaysia—its equestrian treaty with the UK makes the South-East Asian country the most preferred stop for any horse on its way from India to Europe—quarantine it there for two months and then fly out to the UK for a further week of quarantine.
The cost of such travel, say sports officials and sportsmen, runs into “crores of rupees”. While the Indian government has no issues financing the national team’s trips to the Asian Games, it is unwilling to do so for the Olympics. “The government doesn’t consider equestrian events a medal possibility,” explains a senior official of the Equestrian Federation of India (EFI).
But money is not the only factor. Less than a fortnight before an eight-member Indian team—including Rathore—was to catch its flight to China for the Guangzhou Asiad in 2010, came the news that three of the horses had tested positive for Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis, a mosquito-borne viral disease, and were barred from competition. The team events now out of the question, the Indian government refused to pay for air transport for individual event participants and their horses.
While EFI officials accused the Chinese Games authorities of “discrimination”—the Indians were tipped for gold—equestrians later hinted that some of the blame lay at the door of the Federation and the Ministry of Sports. “The situation could have been avoided if the EFI had proper papers to explain the positive results, as subsequent tests cleared the horses. But by then, it was too late,” says a contingent member.
Bitterly disappointed as they were, Indian equestrians were not surprised: They live with challenges. Rathore, a scion of the erstwhile princely state of Sitamau in Madhya Pradesh, believes he has faced more than his fair share of them.
An Unsung Prince
Equestrian sports in India have been long dominated by the country’s Army: Indeed, the 61st Cavalry is believed to be the world’s largest remaining non-ceremonial horse-mounted cavalry. Most of the country’s equestrian infrastructure is controlled by the Army, which also dominates the EFI. No surprise then that most competitive riders are Army officers.
A few civilians, though, have made their mark, supported by riding clubs and business houses. Ajai Appachu, who will become the first Indian to participate in the finals of the Fédération Equestre Internationale World Jumping Challenge in Venezuela in July, for instance, is employed by the Bangalore-based Embassy Group to teach children at the Embassy International Riding School. In May, he won the individual gold in the Korean Racing Authority Gold Cup jumping event in Seoul.