When athletes from many nations and their horses compete for the gold on the jumping field in August at the Beijing Games, the unsung heroes will be the course designers.
For the first time, two international designers will plan the challenging Olympic courses with multiple turns and direction changes over tall verticals, wide spreads and daunting double and triple combinations.
The designer is responsible for the quality and integrity of the sport.
Each course tests the elegance and precision of the horse and rider as a team, and is an individual test of the horse's bravery and agility and the rider's skill and judgment.
Florida native Steve Stephens of Palmetto and Leopoldo Palacios of Caracas, Venezuela, were selected by the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games to design the courses and jumps, and to manage the arena and medal ceremonies.
Both Stephens, 58, and Palacios, 61, were champions at the highest level of world class show jumping before turning to international and Olympic course designing. Stephens also manages grand prix competitions, and owns and operates a business that designs and builds jumps for worldwide events. He has been the course designer/builder of the American Invitational for many years. The Invitational's 36th meet is April 5 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
The Times talked with Stephens about the equestrian events, the climate and what effects it may have on the horses.
Why were equestrian events moved from Beijing to Hong Kong?
What health risks may threaten horses entering mainland China could not be determined by the International Olympic and Beijing Organizing committees. As a result, any horse imported to China would not be allowed back in its home country. Hong Kong was selected because of its long-established equine health status, its existing importation protocols and expertise in dealing with sport horses from within the 124-year-old Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Will the heat and humidity be a problem for the horses?
I was there last August, and it was warm and humid and we even had a typhoon warning. Hong Kong has the same weather we have; it's no worse than August in Florida. But for the horse, this is going to be one of the best Olympics. Every care has been taken for their comfort and safety.
They will live in air-conditioned barns with special areas for them to exercise or just lie down and get dirty. They'll eat the best hay, go for walks, get bathed and massaged, and compete only in the early morning and at night. No one is going to care if I'm cool or if I eat. Would I rather go to this Olympics and be a horse? You bet.
Will the jumps have a theme?
They will showcase the visual characteristics of China and Hong Kong with motifs from its architecture, nature, arts and history. The Great Wall, dragons and pandas are likely subjects. Like the courses, the jumps are kept secret until the day of competition.
Will the American Invitational be more difficult since it's an Olympic year?
It won't be as big as the Olympics. The Olympic course is the ultimate test of every four years, so you don't want to jump the Olympics twice in a year. The Invitational will be as it has been in the past, a full-fledged international jumping competition.
Why do some horses show apprehension when entering Raymond James Stadium, the setting for the Invitational?
It's unlike any other setting for show jumping. The only time the horses enter the stadium is to walk in for the parade and to compete. The riders don't have any idea how their horses are going to react. Some look around and get stage fright. If a rider competes with a not-so-seasoned horse, he or she could be in trouble. But a seasoned horse will perk up and rise to the occasion.