60 Days to Rio: A Conversation with Olympic Course Designer Guilherme Jorge

Guilherme Jorge

The countdown to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games seems to be speeding up, and as the clock rounded the 60-days-to-go mark on June 6th, we corralled official Olympic Course Designer Guilherme Jorge for a quick chat about all things course designing at Rio.

Jorge, who is a native of Brazil and travels around the world designing courses at top international shows, is a familiar face to show jumpers who are used to seeing him among them on coursewalks, tape measure in hand, as he does final checks on the fences he’s set for them to jump. And while he’s designed courses for World Cup Finals, World Championships, and a slew of the world’s top grand prix classes, Rio will mark his first time as head course designer at an Olympic Games:

Q: How does someone get the job to design the courses for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games?
A: Well first you have to have the FEI qualification as the level for it as a course designer. After that you have to have the experience to do that and be known in the circuit. I was fortunate enough to get some really good jobs; I did two World Cup Finals, I did Pan American Games, I’ve been doing some five star shows regularly so I think that helped me get the experience and also helped the riders know my work and trust that I can do a good job.

The process is that the organizing committee asks the FEI for a short list, that’s normally three or four names, and after that the organizing committee asks us to submit a bid, and then we get chosen.

Also I’ve been to four Olympic Games as assistant course designer, to many World Cup Finals, two World Equestrians Games as assistant. I think it’s a way of being up to date with the sport, and I feel ready. I have a great team, Santiago Varela, who is a Spanish course designer, he’s going to be my technical delegate. WE work very well together, and I have a lot of course designers and friends as assistants, like Anthony D’Ambrosio, Leopoldo Palacios, Luc Musette, so we have a great team there as well.

Q: When you found out that you had been awarded the job of Olympic Course Designer, did you straightaway start working on your plan?
A: Unfortunately, like everything in my country, things are done last minute so the decision was made only a little bit over a year and a half before the Games, in October 2014. By the time contracts were signed and everything that was December.

What I did first was the design of the jumps. They are themed jumps from Brazil, and I worked with a great team and a great assistant in Benjamin Fernandez, an FEI course designer from Mexico who helped to design a lot of the jumps for Beijing and Sydney. The jumps are on the way there to Rio already, they were made in England by the same company who did the jumps for the London Olympics

And also we have to submit all of the designs of the jumps to the Look of the Games Department of Rio 2016, which is a very long process because they have to approve everything from all the teams. It’s difficult when sometimes you have an idea and it doesn’t go well with their idea, so they proposed a lot of ideas that I turned into jumps. It was a great opportunity, and while we’re not free to do everything we want, we of course have the final say on all the technical aspects of the jumps and how they’re going to jump.

Q: I’m picturing you at home in your office at night, sketching and re-sketching potential courses. Is that at all accurate?
A: Yes, of course on the side I started doing some courses, which I’m still doing and preparing. Course designing has a lot of creativity involved in it, and as with any creative process you really have to do it a lot, and think and look and try to get the best.

In a Games like this when you have five courses, you really want to test everything in the horse and rider, in the proper way and with the proper process.

Q: Let’s talk about the footing in Rio, is the footing going to be up to par?
A: I think so, yes, it’s not a temporary facility like you saw in London, it’s where we had the Pan American Games in 2007. That was a really nice Games. And now they are redoing everything, and of course everything is again in Brazil, last minute. For the Pan American Games we had a test event 45 days before the Games, and it went well. So for the Olympics we had the test event one year ago in August 2015, and we used the sand arena and the main warmup.

Back then for the test event we didn’t have the idea maintenance of dragging and watering, it wasn’t ideal but it’s not what we’re going to have for Games times. Lars LAST NAME of Sweden, he’s the FEI footing professional who is making a big study for the FEI, and he was there with his machine to test the footing. On a piece of the warmup that we did the proper maintenance on, he tested it and said it was going to be excellent for the Games.

Q: And the question must be asked, with the Deodoro facility be done in time for Rio?
A: Yes, it will be done. I’m quite positive about it and I really think it definitely will be ready.

Q: When do you travel to Rio?
A: I will also do the stadium jumping courses for the eventing, and also for the modern pentathlon, I have the full jumping responsibility, so I’m going to go there for a quick visit in mid-July to check the jumps. And I’m going to be there from the 4th of August, on through the entire Games.

Q: What are your biggest challenge, and the most important goals you’re setting for yourself?
A: The goal is of course not to overdo the horses. That’s our main goal on account of the sport being so intense today. Thirty years ago they might have jumped one big competition per month, versus right now they have three or four five stars they could enter every week, so you have to be very careful about that. We try to do a demanding enough course without asking too much.

The level is really hard today, with one second difference in the time allowed or one jump a little bit higher you can have five more clear or five less clear. But I have a very good team and hopefully we’re going to get it right!