Tokyo Olympics: Creating a winning environment

Tokyo Olympics: Creating a winning environment

Negotiating obstacles ahead of the French, quicker than the Australians and outwitting the Americans – Team GB’s riders had the winning edge before the horses were even off the plane.

As Tokyo’s Baji Koen Equestrian Park facility opened its doors to competing nations ahead of the Olympics, it was Britain who was at the front of the queue waiting to set up.

It proved to be an omen carrying through the entire Games and one personifying the lengths and detailed organisation everyone had put in place to bring home a first team gold in 49 years.

“The last time we’d been in Japan was for the test event in 2019,” recalls British Equestrian Programme Leader Sophie Thomas, who was in the first British cohort to touch down in Tokyo this summer. “The venue was still very much under construction at that point, so we could see snippets of what it was going to look like, but we didn’t have the complete picture.

“We had a really short space of time to set up at the Games anyway, so we were the first team with feet on the ground at the venue because we wanted to be there as soon as it was open to teams. We wanted to give ourselves the maximum time to do what we needed.”

Platform for success

Armed with the contents of a shipping container transported more than 5,500 miles to meet Sophie and her small team in Japan, the British equestrian team’s Olympic campaign had finally reached foreign soil again.

There had been times during the ensuing 22 months since the Tokyo test event when it seemed inevitable the moment would never happen as Covid-19 changed the world.

From the cancellation of a planned trip to the venue in March 2020 to working around countless strict protocols at home and when they arrived at the Games, a gargantuan effort had been made to create a platform for the team to succeed.

That meant leaving no stone unturned to set up an environment for horses and riders to feel at ease with when they arrived, long before they set foot there. It involved getting stuck into the detail of placing extension leads for fans and fridges in the perfect places and making the most of limited room and even constructing a tall rack to solve the issue of fitting four riders’ kit into a three-by-four-foot tack room.

“We’d normally have visited the venue again when it was ready for the Games to get an impression of what it’d look like when we’d arrive with horses and athletes,” Sophie explains.

“But at least seeing the venue at the test event was useful in terms of understanding the layout and the lie of the land. We like to study the stables so that we know what we need to be aware of if we’re put in a particular block, for example.

“In equestrian, we call it the golden hour when the horses and grooms arrive. You want to have everything ready for them so they know where they’re putting their trunks, that their horses are already bedded down and they’ve got their tack room set up ready, so then they can just go in and unpack.

“They need to know where everything is, that we’ve got drinks and snacks for them – it’s those kinds of things that make a real difference to people’s mood. If you start off on the right foot, then you end up on the right foot too. It takes all the stresses and pressures away in a small way that lets them be more focused on their horse and their job.”

Sophie Thomas, British Equestrian Programme Leader

Heat training

It’s the sort of marginal-gains approach that has infiltrated elite sport in the past two decades, removing all possible distractions or problems to ensure athletes are at their mental and physical peaks to perform.

And eventing is no different. Just as preparation for the on-the-ground logistics was started years out from the Games, so too was the conditioning for horses and riders.

The blistering heat and humidity of Japanese summers, which consistently tip beyond 30˚C in an average year, was expected to be one of the biggest challenges facing our team.

Dealing with hot conditions is always a difficulty when competing in sunnier climes and there was only so much that could be done before heading out into the arena – even though the rounds were scheduled to avoid the full glare of the daytime sun.

To combat the conditions, a group of shortlisted British riders were selected to take part in heat training and tests at the English Institute of Sport’s Intensive Rehabilitation Unit at Bisham Abbey, long before the selection process had been completed.

“We knew the heat and humidity would have a huge physiological impact on all the athletes and that heat stress has quite a significant impact on their cognitive ability,” says Ash Wallace, British Equestrian’s Athlete Health Lead for the Games (pictured top).

“We were very fortunate to have access to the English Institute of Sport’s heat chamber and from 2019 we’d go into the chamber in groups. It wasn’t heat acclimatisation because you’ve got to do that every day for 10 days, but it was heat-tolerance testing.

“The eventing team were really proactive. They’d come into the chamber, which was set at 37˚C, with between 70 and 75% humidity because we knew those were going to be the conditions in Tokyo. And then the riders were subjected to very tough, high-intensity sessions on a Wattbike.”

This wasn’t just a case of simply exposing riders to hot temperatures in the hope they’d get used to them, though. Backed up by cutting-edge sports science technology, the riders’ performance was closely monitored to build in-depth profiles of how the heat affected each individual.

Bespoke approach

“The reason we do that is because it starts to give us information around what temperatures the riders go to. We then have the ability to measure their core temperature and who gets really hot really quickly and who struggles in that environment,” Ash continues.

“We also did sweat tests because if two people sweat, one may sweat at a higher rate than the other or have more salty sweat, in which case they need to know how to hydrate. The other key area we looked at and started monitoring was hydration and changing behaviours, using products with electrolytes. The big thing for me is bespoking because what two people need to drink may be different and this information helps me to support the riders appropriately when they’re out there competing.

“All of our riders who went as a team to Tokyo said, ‘oh my word, this feels so much easier than we ever thought it would be’ because we exposed them to an environment back home where they were working in a much higher intensity than it would ever be in Tokyo. That preparation was absolutely crucial.”

Finding an edge

The hunt to find an edge on Britain’s opponents didn’t stop there. The athlete health team also embarked on a project called Ride Cool, which focused on clothing development to identify the best breathable fabric to make the shirts and jackets the team wore during competition more suitable for the Japanese environment. The horses went through their own tailored regimes too. While there were no Wattbikes or heat chambers for the other side of the partnership, rider Laura Collett spoke in the post-victory press conference about how she ‘started galloping my horse [London 52] in a head-to-toe fleece rug’ to prepare him for the sweltering conditions.

When the Games came around, a typhoon blowing through the region curbed some of the expected heat – although the veterinary team had built a bank of knowledge to rely on should the mercury have risen to high levels.

This is where the test event in August 2019 came into its own, with the British team’s decision to take a strong selection of horses to compete giving them a good read of what conditions would be like during the Olympics itself.

Pulling together

Covid did provide a slight hiccup in those preparations though and not because the Games were delayed by a year. With events such as Badminton and Burghley falling by the wayside and travel to mainland Europe much trickier than usual, some smart scheduling and courses, plus Bicton and Aston le Walls hosting replacements, meant the eventing fraternity pulled together to find a way to prepare.

“It was difficult because there weren’t the events to run in that the horses normally would,” picks up Team Vet Liz Brown. “We were lucky because Oliver’s [Townend] horse went to Kentucky and I was able to go with them, so he had a good run and we could really prepare for the Games there.

“With those normal events, you generally know how the horses will come out of them. We went to Bicton, which was brilliant to have the opportunity, but we didn’t know how the horses would come out of it as we didn’t have any previous experience of horses having run there at that level.

“After Bicton, I travelled round to check on all the horses. We were lucky because we took seven horses into quarantine that were very good and very sound. We had good horses that were good reserves as well.”

In control

If all the preparations were in place for the horses and riders to hit the Olympics in the perfect fettle, then it was only the great unknown that could threaten to derail them. And Covid didn’t disappoint.

A constant toing and froing about rules – including quarantine rules, accommodation and transport – meant support teams were constantly making new plans, adapting those and then reverting back again. Regulations meant houses close to Equestrian Park were booked then dropped, a fleet of scooters ordered at short notice and doubt remained over when the team would even fly until a few weeks before take-off because of Britain’s status as a red-list country.

Then came the decision to turn down the chance to quarantine before the Games among other equestrian nations in Aachen and hole up at the British Showjumping National Training Centre in Leicestershire instead.

“By going there, we had an excellent facility and we were in control of the training areas, so we could allocate those,” explains Performance Director Richard Waygood, who made the call to set up their own quarantine in the UK.

“We set up music, built cameras to sit on the side of the arena and had judges, everything you’d want to train your horses into the field of play. With that training camp, it was good for team building because it got everyone together – the accommodation was really good, there was an indoor swimming pool and there were very good gallops locally.

“In Aachen, there were probably 200 horses there at some point and cases of Covid. When they had the torrential rain, they also lost the gallops, so they couldn’t use them and the training areas were jam-packed with people each day.

“Whereas with our quarantine, we could set up exactly what we liked, a course designer, Michael Bainbridge, came in and built some show jumping tracks for us and it was bespoke to what we wanted and needed.”

Mental health

Richard also made the call to give owners the chance to join the travelling contingent – a move echoed only by the US – and ensured all flights to Japan weren’t in standard economy to lessen the exposure to Covid among the team.

But even though precautions were being taken to avoid the direct impact of the virus, the knock-on effect of the group being away from loved ones for so long and in a restricted environment for weeks could still take its toll.

The team had secured separate rooms in the Team GB hotel rather than staying in the Olympic Village with many of the other athletes, but they were still heavily constrained due to Tokyo being under a state of emergency during the Games.

“One of our biggest focuses was on mental wellbeing, mental toughness and resilience,” says Ash. “Throughout Covid, there were many webinars and messages, and we offered a service to athletes.

“Even though we were preparing riders for not being in the Olympic Village, our stay was still going to be restricted and we couldn’t go outside. The first 48 hours after we arrived in Japan were tough – the impact of being in this hotel and only going out between the hours of 7am and 10am to just walk around a little 200 by 50 metre square was extremely restrictive.

“Initially, we had to eat in our bedrooms but we then negotiated a little area where we could take our trays down to and eat together. It was a Games like no other Games. Our psychologist, Leonie Lightfoot, worked with the support teams and the senior leadership team did lots of work around the ‘what ifs’, what are our strengths and what we need when things are stressful and we also had a buddy system, so we were checking in on each other.

“You have to have that all in place before you go; it’s not something you can react to. You’ve got to go into that situation with your eyes open and make sure you’ve got all of those processes in place.”

Taste of normality

Any feelings of isolation were helped because there was more freedom when teams visited Equestrian Park, while schedules were created for riders that included exercise and yoga sessions in the morning before enjoying time outside with their horses later in the day.

Sophie’s support team, who had been there from day one, also provided treats to keep spirits up, with chocolate, crisps and a lollipop tree brought in from home to provide pick-me-ups at key times. But it was a taste of normality that made the biggest difference.

“Our secret weapon was the rest and relaxation space outside that we set up for staff, athletes and grooms,” Sophie says. “We’d taken some picnic tables, easy chairs, beanbags, a parasol and gazebos, so people were able to sit outside, read a book and relax.

“One lunchtime we ordered sushi for everybody from Uber Eats and sat around the picnic area together. It was one of those small things that kept the team together and had a really positive impact.”

Golden day

And it seemed to work as everything came together during the competition as the team achieved the lowest team score in Olympic history (86.3) to bring home the gold, while Tom McEwen took silver in the individual event.

As the three riders showed off their medals, there were countless more smiling faces around the British camp. Years of effort and big decisions had come to this – Britain had taken on the world and won.

First published in the Winter issue of British Eventing Life magazine