Can Japan reach the summit of eventing by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

Toshiyuki Tanaka and Talma d'Allou at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games
Credit : Scoopdyga

Friday 07 December - 12h12 | Sébastien Roullier

Can Japan reach the summit of eventing by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

While not there just yet, Japan is fast becoming a real eventing power. Thanks to the technical expertise of former French coach Laurent Bousquet, combined with an ambitious program of horse acquisitions, the land of the Rising Sun – fourth at the 2018 Tryon FEI World Equestrian Games and an easy winner at the most recent Asian Games in Jakarta – can realistically dream of winning at home two years from now, at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

 - Can Japan reach the summit of eventing by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

Shigeyuki Hosono, chef d’équipe, Andrew Bathe, veterinarian, and Laurent Bousquet, coach and national manager, at the World Equestrian Games
Credit : Yusuke Nakanishi

July 29, 2012, Greenwich Park, London. On the opening day of the two-day London Olympic Games dressage test for eventing, Yoshiaki Oiwa pulls off a near-perfect test routine with Noonday de Condé. The British public, connoisseurs of the discipline, bursts into applause for the Japanese rider and his Selle Français mount. Indeed, over the next two days, no combination would better them. Alas, the great Olympic adventure of the bronze medalists at the Asian Games in Guangzhou two years earlier [and third-place finishers at the 2011 Strzegom CIC3*-W], would come to an end in the cross-country phase, where the pair were eliminated. In fact, among the Japanese competitors, only Atsushi Negishi, 39th with Pretty Darling CD, and Toshiyuki Tanaka, 48th on Marquis de Plescop, would complete the competition, while Takayuki Yumira and Kenki Sato were also eliminated on Latina 43 and Chippieh respectively. Far behind Germany, Great Britain and New Zealand, the three nations picking up gold, silver and bronze, the Japanese team were thus not part of the final discussion. For its part, France, at the time under the management of a certain Laurent Bousquet, would have to content itself with eighth place.

Three years later, the same Laurent Bousquet was contacted by the Japanese Federation with a goal as ambitious as it was exciting: to elevate the country to the upper echelons of the sport of eventing. "The idea was to develop their riders to be as good as possible at the Olympic Games in Rio,” recalls Bousquet, who had already been in charge of Japan’s riders from 1991–2004, before leading the Belgian team from 2005–2010 and France from 2010–2013. “There was not much time and Japan, which had not qualified for Rio as a team, only had two individuals competing in Brazil. At the same time, that allowed us to get to know each other and understand each other.” In Brazil, the country’s most experienced rider, 42-year-old Yoshiaki Oiwa, finished 20th with The Duke of Cavan, while Ryuzo Kitajima's partner, Just Chocolate, was eliminated during the second veterinary visit after a difficult cross-country race.

Confirmed in his role by the Japanese Federation, the former international rider has since redoubled his efforts with the goal of boosting the country’s national team for the Tokyo Olympic Games, to be held from July 24–August 9, 2020. "We have tried to structure things," he says. "The idea has been to build a competitive team, strengthen the group of horses and ensure that everyone has their place in this project: riders, private coaches, grooms, the team veterinarian and treating veterinarians, the chef d’équipe [Shigeyuki Hosono] and the Federation. We also set goals to try to progressively climb up to the highest level. The riders are based between France, England, Germany and of course Japan. Three of them who are still developing, Kenki Sato, Atsushi Negishi and Koki Nakamura, are permanently based at home and I follow their work on a daily basis. For the others, I am both coach and manager. I am in constant contact with them, as well as with their coaches, and try to travel as often as possible to see them, help them progress technically and discuss their individual schedules and goals. I also travel twice a year to Japan, which helps maintain the motivation of the riders who are there. Even if the level is lower than in Europe, they understand that the doors of the national team remain open to them." Continued below.

Ahead of Germany, Australia and New Zealand

Ahead of Germany, Australia and New Zealand - Can Japan reach the summit of eventing by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

At the end of August in Jakarta, Indonésie, Bart L helped Yoshiaki Oiwa win two gold medals at the Asian Games
Credit : Yong Teck Lim/FEI

In September in Tryon, North Carolina, the efforts of the Frenchman, the Federation and the Japanese riders paid off, with the team taking a historic fourth place at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) – ahead of nations like Germany, defending champion from 2014 in Normandy, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Sweden and the Netherlands, bronze medalists in 2014. Individually, Toshiyuki Tanaka finished 15th with Talma d’Allou, Yoshiaki Oiwa 20th with Calle 44 – a horse brought in at the last minute as a replacement for The Duke of Cavan – Kazuma Tomoto 23rd on Tacoma d'Horset, and Ryuzo Kitajima 59th with Queen Mary. "The Japanese displayed some great riding,” said Michel Asseray, Deputy National Technical Director of the French Riding Federation, at the end of WEG. “Their horses are jumping well, they are well-coached and have progressed enormously. We are very happy for Laurent Bousquet, who has always believed in this project since the beginning. It’s a nation which should clearly be a contender at the Tokyo Olympics in two years, although we plan to be too!"
For his part, Laurent Bousquet highlights the overall progress of his team’s pairs. "Even if it might seem like a surprise, this fourth place at the WEG is really not a result of luck, but of serious long-term work. In 2017, as Japan was not competing in any championships or targeting a qualification, we tried to press forward with individual performances. And on that point I must say that the riders exceeded my expectations. Not only have they become more competitive, but they have also gained confidence, which is absolutely essential in our discipline. Since then, Japanese riders have been having good results everywhere. To mention just the end of the 2018 season, Kazuma Tomoto was fifth in the CCIO 3* Boekelo with Brookpark Vikenti, and Kenki Sato was third in Montelibretti's CCI 3* with the young Shanaclough Contadora. Not to mention the excellent performance in the Pau CCI4* by Toshiyuki Tanaka, ninth with Kelecyn Pirate, and Ryuzo Kitajima, 14th on Just Chocolate, where both were competing in their first ever CCI4*. This fourth place at the WEG obviously pleased everyone. I would have loved to come away with a medal, but I was also very happy that the French won the bronze." Today, there are no fewer than eight Japanese riders ranked among the 500 best riders in the world, including four in the Top 100: Toshiyuki Tanaka, Yoshiaki Oiwa, Kazuma Tomoto and Ryuzo Kitajima.
In addition, a few weeks before the WEG, Japan dominated the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, largely thanks to Bart L, a two-time gold medalist with Yoshiaki Oiwa. Team Olympic champion in 2016 in Rio with Mathieu Lemoine, Bart L was purchased by the Japanese Federation in September, 2017. At this competition, which is admittedly only a CCI1*, the Japanese pair managed to overtake China’s Alex Hua Tian, ​​the best Asian rider of the past 10 years, riding PSH Convivial. And there, Japan easily won the team competition, ahead of India and a Thai team coached by Maxime Livio. "We decided to put together a team with two riders based in Europe and two in Japan, to help them gain experience, and that worked well," says Bousquet. Continued below.

Bart L, Vinci of the Vineyard and others

Bart L, Vinci of the Vineyard and others - Can Japan reach the summit of eventing by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

Show jumping winner in Los Angeles with Uranus, Takeichi Nishi remains the only equestrian medalist in the history of the Olympic Games
Credit : FEI

Until recently, Bart L had been the top acquisition by Japan in the modest market of eventing horses. But now, Laurent Bousquet can also count on Vinci de la Vigne, seventh at the WEG with Astier Nicolas, who joined the string of Kazuma Tomoto, a rider installed at the facilities of British legend William Fox-Pitt. "It was essential to improve our group of horses. In our discipline, even with the best possible preparation and taking every precaution, horse injuries remain the main factor limiting progress. We want to have a maximum on hand, in order to overcome any physical ailments or injuries that may come up. We have been working on that since last year, as well as this year, and it should continue over coming months – keeping in mind the qualification deadlines [in eventing, for safety reasons, riders must follow a qualification course from level to level, which does not exist in jumping or dressage – editor’s note]." In addition to Bart and Vinci, one can mention Vinka's, an excellent Anglo-Arab trained by Thomas Carlile, Vegas Elf and Ventura de La Chaule, from the stables of Nicolas Touzaint, and Absinthe du Loir, the solid partner of Fabrice Saintemarie, just acquired by a rider based in Japan.
Clearly, the rise of Japanese eventing also benefits the French industry. "In France, riders, breeders and owners know me well,” says Laurent Bousquet. “We have good relationships. I have always been interested in highlighting the talent of French horses and the know-how of our breeders and riders. As far as possible, I really try to buy French horses for my riders, and am delighted to be able to help breeders, owners and riders a little. I'm aware that some purchases are a bit of a loss for the French team, but that's not the goal. In fact, I'm only interested in horses that really are for sale, and would only allow transparent, above-board dealings.”
In the other two Olympic disciplines, which require investment on a different scale, Japan is still struggling to compete with the best nations. Thus, despite the fine performances of Karen Polle, winner of her first CSI 5* Grand Prix in 2017 in Wellington, her show jumping team finished only 20th – out of 25 squads – at Tryon after winning silver at the Asian Games. And there are only three Japanese among the top 500 in the Longines world rankings for jumping riders: Karen Polle, Hikari Yoshizawa and Taizo Sugitani. In fact, Eiken Sato, Kenki's brother, who left Stephex stables in the summer of 2014 for personal reasons, remains the only one to have climbed into the top 50. In dressage, things are much better, as there are eight pairs in the top 500 of the world rankings. However in September in Tryon, the Japanese team finished only 14th of 15, and none of the country’s combinations qualified for the Grand Prix Special. And in this case too, the Team gold medal won in Jakarta does not mean much when it comes to the big league in the sport. "The Japanese Federation is focused on the long term," explains Laurent Bousquet. "Our achievements in eventing are a great message for all emerging nations. If we give ourselves the resources, without spending as much money as Qatar or Saudi Arabia have done in jumping, and if we structure our sport policy and entrust it to professionals over the long term, we can make some waves at a highest level."
Whatever the case, the host nation of the Olympic Games in Tokyo will therefore mostly be counting on its eventers to shine in the equestrian competition: "That is clearly the goal. We have a year-and-a-half left to continue our efforts and try to come to Tokyo as technically, physically and mentally prepared as possible. We also need to keep our feet on the ground, because we know that everything worked out perfectly at Tryon and that this is not always the case in eventing. If we had had a mishap during the cross or at the second veterinary visit, our final position in the standings would have been totally different... In any case, what we have experienced this year obviously gives us hope."

And one can mention that Japan is one of the 30 or so nations that have already had their athletes climb onto an Olympic podium since equestrian sports were first integrated into the Games in 1912 in Stockholm. The only medal won by one of its riders was in Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. Riding Uranus, Lieutenant Takeichi Nishi captured gold in show jumping. Still, when one sees that only 11 horse-and-rider combinations took part in the competition, and only five completed it, it is clear that times have changed.

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