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Special Olympics Summer Games in Shanghai China: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Horse

By Roberta
[Thursday, October 18, 2007]

I just returned from the World Special Olympics Summer Games in Shanghai, China, where one of my riding students was representing the U.S. Special Olympics Equestrian Team. In the coming weeks I will be writing about China's environmental accomplishments and shortcomings, but today I wanted to share my Olympic experiences.

The Special Olympics Summer World Games in Shanghai took center stage in China during the first eleven days of October. Perhaps they were a prelude to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games scheduled to take place in Beijing. If the opening and closing ceremonies are any indication of what's to come, the world is in for a major extravaganza.

Opening Ceremonies were held in Shanghai Stadium in down town Shanghai, which has a seating capacity of 80,000. Hoards of guests including Olympian family members, press, dignitaries and local residents packed the facility to watch 7,500 Special Olympians from 165 countries march in to music composed and conducted by Tan Dun, the composer for the soundtracks of the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Grammy Award winning Quincy Jones composed the Special Olympics Games theme song, "I Know I Can." Performers included such household names as Jackie Chan, David Wu, Lang Lang, Colin Farrell, Karen Mok, Vicky Zhao, Angela Cho, Yo Yo Ma, The Silk Road Ensemble, Quincy Jones, Yao Ming, Vanessa Williams, Bruce Willis and Zhang Ziyi. Dignitaries included China's President Hu Jintao, who officially opened the ceremonies, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The magnificently choreographed performance and fireworks display were truly of Olympic quality.

While there were a few glitches in providing the box meals promised to the spectators and getting people into the stadium in an orderly fashion, China treated family members as dignitaries and I quickly felt that I was a welcomed guest of the People's Republic of China.

Closing ceremonies held at Shanghai Jiangwan Stadium were no less spectacular, featuring performers that included Jose Carreras, and Kenny G. Intellectually disabled Chinese conductor Zhou Zhou led an orchestral performance of "Prelude for Festival". The show included lights, music, flying fairies, one of whom was a down syndrome girl fulfilling her dream, spectator participation in Thai Chi, and a fireworks display that dwarfed any such performance that I had ever seen.

Unfortunately, somewhere between the opening and closing ceremonies, something seemed to break down, resulting in frustration for athletes and coaches. From the start of competition, "sandbagging" became obvious. In order to give all participants a fair opportunity to medal, regardless of level of disability, participants went through preliminary performances in order to categorize them according to their ability. Theoretically, this seems fair. But it is only fair if competitors perform to their ability in division placement performance. China was not alone in "sandbagging," but they seemed to take it to a new level. One rider scored in the 20s on his placement performance, then scored in the high 60s in actual competition. This happened not only throughout the equestrian events, but also in many other sports. Apparently, one Chinese table tennis team performed as if they couldn't even play the sport in placement, then played like champions for the actual competition and took the gold.

As national equestrian teams were not allowed to bring their own horses unless they sent them to China six months prior to the Special Olympic games, Chinese event organizers were responsible for providing all equestrian competitors with horses to be used in competition. As part of this responsibility, earlier this year, the Chinese came to the United States and purchased ten quality horses to take back to China for the competitions. They reportedly purchased horses from other countries as well. However, the vast majority of mounts provided at the games were Mongolian Ponies that had obviously never performed in the show ring, and had no training in dressage. While horses and riders were supposed to be selected by a lottery system, the Chinese and Germans ended up with the vast majority of imported horses, while most of the competitors from other countries ended up with the untrained Mongolian Ponies.

Before leaving for China, the rider I had been training for five years, Jackie Guiseley from Raymond Maine, kept asking what would happen if she got a horse that was gaited, or one that bucked. I naively assured Jackie that Chinese officials would know enough to select only well-trained, safe horses with standard walk-trot-canter gaits. Little did I know how wrong I would be. Jackie was given a Mongolian pony, probably one of the homeliest horses at the event. Its ears had been frostbitten off, and of the stubs that remained, one hung off to the side, and the other was pinned back. His head stuck straight out on a short thick neck. He would not go out of a walk unless the rider kicked him violently. Dressage riders, however, have been trained never to kick, because dressage requires invisible communication between horse and rider. If Jackie carried a whip, the horse would buck. If the crowd clapped or cheered, the horse would buck. Like most of the other Mongolian ponies, Jackie's mount refused to enter the arena, and shied from the tents and judges stands. As if that weren't bad enough, it turned out that Mongolian ponies are gaited. They do not always have a true trot, but rather a gait known as "Tsouma," which makes them difficult to ride in dressage.

Except for the fact that Jackie had the homeliest pony of all, she was on an equal playing field with many of the other non-Chinese riders who were also riding Mongolian ponies. But the travesty does not end there. Jackie's disability results in a diminished short-term memory and she learns only by tremendous repetition. We had spent two months helping Jackie memorize and master her dressage test. Then just two days before the opening of the equestrian event, the contestants were notified that officials had changed the dressage test that would be used for competition.

Upon questioning, it was learned that the test change had been made two months before the event, but that officials had apparently forgotten to inform all of the national coaches and as such, I had never been informed of the new test so that I could teach it to Jackie before going to China. Interestingly enough, apparently, all of the Chinese riders and coaches had been informed of the test change in a timely manner as all of the Chinese riders had memorized the new test. Jackie, however, never had the opportunity to ride the test, and had only been able to do one dry run without her horse.

Even if Jackie had ridden the new test several times in China prior to her competition, it would have been too short a time for her to memorize the new test. While athletes were able to have the new test called verbally during competition, Jackie, like many other competitors, due to her disabilities, does not know left from right, and has a delayed reaction time that does not allow her to assimilate a called routine quickly enough to respond in time to perform appropriate moves. As one might expect, her performance was a disaster, not at all representative of her ability as an equestrian.

Jackie was not alone in her frustration. A rider from Gibraltar was given a horse that refused to enter the arena. After the coach forcefully dragged the horse into the arena, it spun and reared. It was a truly dangerous situation, and the rider was removed from the horse and disqualified. He rightfully should have been given a re-ride on a different horse, but it didn't happen. Another rider was thrown and unable to continue competition. One rider's horse laid down in the arena in the middle of a dressage test, and two riders were disqualified because their horse left the arena when the ring crew forgot to close the gate. The gate had been properly closed for a third rider who won a gold (there were only 3 in the class!). Again, there was no equal playing field.

The equitation classes were not like any I had ever seen in any Special Olympics event or open competition. Typically, the riders ride at all prescribed gaits in both directions. They are judged on form, control and performance. They then may be asked to perform an individual workout (typically a figure 8 at a walk and trot or trot and canter depending upon the level of competition). In this event, they simply walked half way around the arena, lined up, and basically were asked to perform an alpha, with a halt and salute to the judge at the end. Unfortunately, Jackie was the first rider to go. She was given verbal directions, but not shown the pattern. She completed the routine, as she understood it to be (which was close, but not exactly correct). The judge was not at the end of the alpha as one would expect, but behind Jackie and to the left. Thinking that she had to acknowledge the judge, Jackie halted and turned around in the saddle to acknowledge the judge (not pretty). Again, Jackie was not alone in her frustration. In a previous class, a judge walked across the performance area while a rider was completing the pattern.

One thing that I was intrigued by was how well many of China's intellectually handicapped competitors could speak English and discuss the events quite intelligently. Apparently others noticed too, and questioned it. They were informed that China classified impoverished people as being intellectually handicapped. In other words, it was social status and not intellectual capacity that determined whether a Chinese individual could compete in Special Olympics.

I cannot speak for what happened in the other events. If, however, the equestrian events are any example of how the other sports were conducted, then those competitions were anything but fair. Anyone who thinks that it really doesn't matter how these competitors place because they really don't understand winning, is totally wrong. Most of the Special Olympic athletes know when they have done their best and have been cheated. Jackie is no exception; she returned home from China totally devastated. Her confidence level that we have spent so many years working very hard to develop has been absolutely crushed. I am sure she is not alone. When Jackie left for China she was almost ready to compete in open shows. Now I fear we will have to start all over again to build up her confidence.

The Special Olympics Committee needs to address issues that reared their ugly heads at the 2007 Summer Special Olympics and make appropriate changes before the next World Games in Athens in 2011. After talking with many other families and local coaches who attended the games, I have written just a few items that need to be addressed:

  • There should be a clearer definition of what constituted "Intellectually handicapped," and there must be evidence that all competitors qualify on that basis.
  • There needs to be a fairer way of determining the ability level of riders for competition, and the ability level should be based upon level of intellectual handicap rather than how they compete in preliminary events.
  • Since Equestrian events require the use of animals, there should be standards developed for the quality and training of the horses based upon the level of competition. At the very least, all horses should have had competition experience and be appropriately trained for the events for which they will be used. A horse that is not trained to respond to legs and hasn't reached a basic level of suppleness responding readily to accepted aids is not suitable for Special Olympics competition. Horses must be safe and appropriate for the rider and the type of competition. One would wonder if there would be a way in which countries could provide their own horses for the events, the ones that riders had already ridden. Remember that these individuals are handicapped and may be easily confused by strange horses, especially ones that are not properly trained.
  • Tests should all be provided in advance, and there should be a deadline on when changes in tests can be made prior to competition. Contestants should be judged on ability to ride, not ability to memorize tests quickly. After all, they shouldn't be competing in the Special Olympics if they are not mentally challenged, and mentally challenged individuals normally learn much slower than other individuals.
  • Every rider should be judged on a level playing field. For instance, if the ring crew forgets to close the gate for a rider, and the horse leaves the ring as a result, the rider should have an opportunity for a re-ride, unless the gate was left open for all riders. Likewise, if a rider is competing on a horse drawn by lottery, and is unable to complete an event because it refuses to enter the arena or perform (even when the coach or groom is struggling to get the animal to cooperate), the rider should be given a re-ride and even a different horse if necessary.

I do not hold China responsible for all of the abnormalities in the equestrian competition. This is not a sport that is common in China. China may not have had enough information about Special Olympics Equestrian competition to anticipate all possible problems. However, "sandbagging", failure to inform other coaches of change in tests, including poverty alone in the definition of an intellectually handicapped individual, and apparent rigging of horse lottery so that they received most of the warm-bloods, Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, leaving the Mongolian Ponies for other countries, was inexcusable. All of the horses should have been of comparable quality and training.

When I am asked about my trip to China, I am quick to tell about the wonderful experiences I had as I traveled through Beijing, Xian and Shanghai. I rave about the quality of the opening and closing ceremonies. Then I am suddenly at a loss to explain what happened between the two festive ceremonies that marked what should have been a chance of a lifetime for many Olympians who justifiably feel as if they had been cheated.


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Anonymous said...

Dear Roberta, I really agree with you. I was an athlete in swimming from Athens. I swam with some other girls, that went up to 50-51 seconds for 50 meters. I did a 50 sec. Then I was placed to swim with some of them again..guess what? The three of them swam at speeds 41sec 43 and 45. Of course they got all the medals. Why do they do all this cheating? I hate it. I don't feel that I am worth something cause I try and do my best in the heats and in the finals, and what do I gain out of it? I am seriously thnking of leaving special olympics and go and swim just for my own pleasure, as there are so many cheaters in all sports. I wish God would see this and punish them.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a lot of injustice was served. I have coached a rider with a disablitity to an international level which is governed by IPEC. There are very strict classification rules that place riders on a level playing field, and horses go through rigourous testing and are placed in divisions accordingly.

It breaks my heart to read your story as I know how hard these athletes work. I would personally take this to the committee and demand a review and perhaps a meeting with IPEC would be in order to try to avoid this disaster.

My heart goes out to every athlete that was cheated...

Roberta said...

I realize that it might be more difficult to classify intellectually challenged individuals than physically challenged athletes (or maybe not). I haven’t worked as much with strictly physically handicapped riders, some, but not many. I hope to learn more about IPEC in the near future as I become more involved with NAHRA. Still, there should be some criteria that could be established to classify a competitor’s level of competition based upon actual disability. I think it will be a challenge. Right now they attempt to control “sandbagging” by disqualifying a competitor if the scores in actual competition vary significantly from their qualifying scores. Unfortunately, it didn’t always happen in China. Sandbagging is a little hard to control. Where do you draw the line?

In terms of equine suitability, I think we could learn a lot from IPEC. It is extremely important that all horses be approved by a committee who is highly qualified both in knowledge of the competitive events to be offered and the special requirements of mounts to be used by intellectually challenged individuals. All horses should be seasoned show horses, familiar with crowds, flags flapping in the wind and loud speakers. They should be evaluated in conditions similar to what would be expected in Special Olympic Competition.

The Special Olympics Committee considers safety above all other considerations; and I feel confident that they will take necessary measures to make sure that the same situation does not happen in the future. Make no doubt about it; I am whole-heartedly in support of the Special Olympics. They provide a wonderful opportunity for intellectually challenged individuals to compete on an equal playing field, meet new friends, learn sportsmanship, experience the joy of victory and gain a certain amount of empathy for their competitors who don’t perform to their own expectations. I watched as my World Special Olympian hugged a young woman whom she didn’t even know and encouraged her to just go in the ring and do her best. It was a touching moment.

My newly adopted 17-year old daughter competes in Equine events, swimming, ice skating, bowling, and track and field. We have medals and ribbons hanging proudly off the balcony of the loft in our log home. I cannot imagine what our lives would be without it. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to work with these athletes are rewarded 100 times over. I think they give to us more than we could ever give to them. I am sure that as an IPEC coach you understand that.

I am looking forward to the Athens Special Olympics of 2011 and feel certain that with all problems having been addressed, it will be a wonderful event. Coaches, parents, countries and competitors must catch the spirit of the games. We will do our best to help athletes win, but we want them to win on a fun, safe and equal playing field. I will not judge the program on the basis of this event, because I have participated in many Special Olympics events that were marvelous. I will support Special Olympics and am more than willing to work to help overcome problems and that some of the participants experienced in the most recent world games.

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” (Special Olympics motto)

Roberta Barbalace

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